It’s no secret that the American ARPANET, the direct carrier of the Internet today, was created as part of America’s response to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War – and thus, geopolitics has been part of the “Network of Networks” genes since it was conceived. It is no secret that, after three decades of Internet marketing, the Internet has become a major – if not primary – domain of geopolitical rivalry, competition, espionage, sabotage and even war.
The major superpowers in today’s geopolitical tension online – the United States, the European Union, China… followed closely by Russia and India – have been on display for more than a decade (and with regard to Russia versus the EU and the US, in our headlines last month.) as opposed to geopolitical rivalries. And wars between the empires based in Europe in past centuries, that fought in the oceans, in Africa, Asia and the Americas, geopolitical great powers are easy to identify, while among the lesser Internet powers, shifting alliances and neutral states are common.
However, the goals of today’s Internet superpowers are a combination of the eighteeny Century concepts to control land, population and 21St Century concepts to control dominant technologies and the information economies of other countries. However, the Ukraine, Taiwan and even Snowden’s disclosures are a stark reminder that 18 yearsy The century’s concepts of land and population control were not far from the top.
The starting point in any examination of the geopolitics of the Internet should be its origins in the United States and the resulting fact that a 1,000-mile strip from Seattle to San Diego encompasses nearly all of the Internet’s basic infrastructure, almost all of which are essentially made by Americans. This obviously makes the United States the online superpower of the great powers. No superpower can confirm any 21St or up to 18y Century geopolitical goals without taking this fact into account. And they do so in various ways, from regulating America’s internet infrastructure giants to banning them and replacing them with local alternatives.
From this international starting point – setting aside for a moment US domestic concerns about the regulation of Internet infrastructure, which range from economic justice to privacy – it is clear that it is in America’s international interest to alter as little as possible the balance of power on the Internet. There are a few possible scenarios in which American dominance in this field will increase to what it is today, which would in theory make the United States the main supporter of the Internet’s status quo.
Another starting point is the fact that of the 4.5 billion global Internet users, about 6% (250 million) are Americans, while about 17% (760 million) are Chinese; About 9 percent (400 million) are Europeans; About 9 percent (400 million) are Indians, and about 2 percent (100 million) are Russians. Japan and Brazil are also in the Russian league.
The way each of these online superpowers expresses their geopolitical rivalry with the dominant country, the United States, is different over time and between them. Perhaps the oldest is Europe. Europe’s rivalry with America in the Internet domain probably dates back half a century to de Gaulle-era decisions to create European alternatives to effective US monopolies in such ground-breaking technologies as commercial aircraft, atomic bombs, missiles, and computers. This led, among other things, to European “informatics” initiatives such as the French computer network of the 1980s often called Minitel.
When it became clear in the mid-1990s that America’s open Internet would replace every closed European computer network, European strategy shifted toward accepting the inevitability of the Internet as a global domain and toward regulating and eventually taxing American Internet giants. At the same time, Europe has sought to nurture European alternatives to America’s internet giants, as it has in the space field in past decades.
China chose a different path. Having developed rapidly mainly during 21St A century later, after a decade of American dominance of the Internet—and with historical doubts about American geopolitical motives—China’s trajectory has been marked by massive state-encouraged investments in internet services and the exclusion of America’s internet infrastructure giants even more than it otherwise would have been. Done by simple organization. As a result, with a few notable exceptions, a small number of Chinese Internet users rely heavily on US Internet companies for their Internet experience. From this base, China has made it clear that it intends to expand its Internet technologies and services to other countries and populations around the world.
Realizing that it lacks both the market size and financial resources of either the European Union or China, Russia has sought to exploit Internet technology niches where it has strengths and forge alliances with other countries with the aim of international cooperation to limit and constrain them. Regulating and monitoring America’s dominance on the Internet. With international relations dating back to the Soviet Union stimulated by skepticism about US political/military motives on the Internet and intensified by Snowden’s disclosure, Russia has loudly sought to develop international alliances to reduce the geopolitical dominance of the US Internet while quietly building Internet bridges that can be raised. To reduce the Russian dependence on the Internet giants in America.
It remains unclear when, where and how India will express its geopolitical interests online – and perhaps the biggest unanswered geopolitical question online.
Most countries have simply followed long-standing political alliances or habits. Periodically, some countries subtly shifted their support between the approaches of the Chinese, American, European, and even Russian great powers, sometimes seeming to support several different Internet superpowers at the same time.
While these online geopolitical struggles rarely get as much media attention as political/military or even economic/financial struggles do, they are just as important and can have a huge impact on the daily lives of people everywhere. No matter how much publicity the geopolitics of the internet gets, because the stakes are so high, it’s sure to get even more tense for the foreseeable future.
Roger Cochetti Provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, DC. He was a senior executive at Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 until 1994. He also directed Internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000, later serving as Senior Vice President and Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Director of Group Policy for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on Internet policy issues several times and served on advisory committees for the Federal Trade Commission and various United Nations agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.