Thesis #26

The Internet could become a new kind of failed state

In February 2015, Sean Gallagher, the IT Editor of the ArsTechnica website wrote an intriguing article speculating on how the Internet would evolve. He likened the current state of the Internet to how New York city was in the 1970s — bankrupt, riven by urban blight and very high levels of crime. But despite that, most residents of New York got on with their lives and had — at worst — minor skirmishes with street crime. “Today”, Gallagher wrote,

”we all dabble in some place that looks a lot like 1970s New York City—the Internet. (For those needing a more recent simile, think the Baltimore of The Wire). Low-level crime remains rampant, while increasingly sophisticated crime syndicates go after big scores. There is a cacophony of hateful speech, vice of every kind (see Rule 34), and policemen of various sorts trying to keep a lid on all of it—or at least, trying to keep the chaos away from most law-abiding citizens. But people still use the Internet every day, though the ones who consider themselves “street smart” do so with varying levels of defenses installed. Things sort of work.”

Eventually, New York was rescued and returned to prosperity and functionality. Might this also happen to the Net? Gallaghar’s conclusion was: don’t bet on it.

”The Internet might soon look less like 1970s New York and more like 1990s Mogadishu: warring factions destroying the most fundamental of services, “security zones” reducing or eliminating free movement, and security costs making it prohibitive for anyone but the most well-funded operations to do business without becoming a “soft target” for political or economic gain.”

So what are the possible futures for the Internet? One study by the Atlantic Council came up with five scenarios:

  1. Status quo: a continuation of what we now have. “Cyberspace is generally a safe place in which to do business and to communicate with others, even though criminals continue to engage in multimillion-dollar heists and steal millions of people’s personal details; national foreign intelligence agencies poke and prod for military and industrial secrets.”

  2. Conflict domain: essentially an extrapolation of the militarisation of cyberspace that we are already seeing – a world in which cyberwarfare becomes common.

  3. Balkanisation: cyberspace has broken into national fiefdoms: there is no single internet, just a collection of national internets.

  4. Paradise: cyberspace becomes an overwhelmingly secure place where espionage, warfare and crime are rare.

  5. Cybergeddon: cyberspace degenerates into a virtual failed state with all that that implies. Think modern-day Mogadishu.

Since the future is unknowable, any guess about the probability of each is just that — a guess. But for what it’s worth, I rank them 3, 2, 1, 5 and 4. We’re already seeing Balkanisation with the growth and dominance of the Chinese Internet. And the idea of cyberspace as ‘paradise’ seems, well, delusional.

Further Reading

Sean Gallaghar, “Cybergeddon: Why the Internet could be the next ‘failed state'”, ArsTechnica, 24 February, 2015.

Jason Healey, “The Five Futures of Cyber Conflict and Cooperation”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2011, pp 110-117.

John Naughton, “Has the internet become a failed state?”, Observer, 27 November 2016.