States embark on a scramble for cyberspace
Comment of the Day

March 18 2010

Commentary by David Fuller

States embark on a scramble for cyberspace

My thanks to a subscriber for this interesting and topical article by Misha Glenny for the Financial Times. Here is the opening
It is time to stop thinking of cyberspace as a new medium or an agglomeration of new media. It is a new continent, rich in resources but in parts most perilous. Until 30 years ago, it had lain undiscovered, unmined and uninhabited.

The first settlers were idealists and pioneers who set out from San José, Boston and Seattle before sending back messages about the exciting virgin lands that awaited humanity in the realm of the net. They were quickly followed by chancers and adventurers who were able to make fortunes by devising their own version of the South Sea Bubble.

It was inevitable that the wondrous materials found all over this territory would attract the interest of nation states. Now, the scramble for cyberspace has begun. Military and intelligence agencies are already staking their claim for the web's high ground as civilian powers lay down boundaries to define what belongs to whom and who is allowed to wander where.

Cyberspace is being nationalised rapidly. In some parts of the world, this has been going on for a while. Russia has been running a programme known by the delightfully sinister acronym Sorm-2 (System of operational investigative activities) since the late 1990s. This ensures that a copy of every single data byte that goes into, out of or around the country ends up in a vast storage vault run by the Federal Security Service. You can read about atrocities committed in Chechnya if you wish but you can be confident that somebody will be looking over your digital shoulder.

China, of course, has its "great firewall", filtering politically incorrect sites along with pornography and other forms of cultural contamination. But of even greater import is China's demand, effectively conceded, that the US relinquish control of the internet's language and domain names through the Californian non-profit organisation Icann. This is being transformed into a United Nations-style regulatory operation. China will soon have absolute say over the internet's structure within its borders.

The legal mapping of cyberspace in the west is more chaotic. But we are now witnessing the establishment of myriad laws and rules by legislators and in the courts. In a hearing this week at Blackfriars Crown Court in London following a major cyber-crime trial, Harendra de Silva QC put his finger on it when he argued that "we are entering a world where almost any human interaction of any kind will require use of the internet".

David Fuller's view Misha Glenny reminds us that "the US designated cyberspace as the 'Fifth Domain' last June and the first man-made one after land, sea, air and space." This is a remarkable concept and underlines the importance of what mankind has created.

Like most of my generation, I find the internet much more fascinating and useful than frightening and annoying, even though it was unknown and therefore largely inaccessible during at least the first half of our lives. Consequently, we are ill-suited to make the most effective use of cyberspace, as our children and grandchildren are quick to remind us, however tactfully. They can barely imagine life without it.

Cyberspace has its dark side, as my generation is often quickest to point out. Yes, but this could be said, and was, of practically everything that we have created throughout human history. I regard cyberspace as potentially the greatest achievement of our species to date. Still in its infancy, it may even be capable of changing our evolutionary development.

Information technology remains one of Fullermoney's favourite long-term investment themes.

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