Skip to Content

Online Nationalism

The rhetoric about “cyberwar” is getting out of control.

For something that was supposed to ignore borders and bring the world closer, the Internet is fostering an awful lot of nationalism right now. We’re seeing increased concern about where IT products and services come from: U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China, European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S., and Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems to avoid using foreign ones.

I see this as an effect of the saber-­rattling that has been going on. The major nations of the world are in a cyberwar arms race, and we’re all being hurt by the collateral damage.

Our nationalist worries have recently been fueled by reports of attacks from China. These attacks aren’t new—cyber-security experts have been writing about them for at least a decade, and the most recent allegations aren’t very different. This isn’t to say that the Chinese attacks aren’t serious; the country’s espionage campaign is sophisticated. But it’s not just China. All governments have discovered the Internet; everyone is spying on everyone else. China is certainly worried about the U.S. Cyber Command’s recent announcement that it was expanding from 900 people to almost 5,000, and about the National Security Agency’s massive new data center in Utah.

At the same time, many nations are demanding more control over the Internet within their borders. They reserve the right to spy and censor, and to limit the ability of others to do the same.

But remember: this is not cyberwar. It’s espionage, something that’s been going on between countries ever since countries were invented. Yet the rhetoric we’re hearing is of war.

Unfortunately, that plays into the hands of the military and corporate interests that gain power and profit from the cyberwar arms race in the first place. The more we believe we are “at war,” the more willing we are to give up our privacy, freedoms, and control over how the Internet is run.

Arms races are fueled by two things: ignorance and fear. We don’t know the capabilities of the other side, and we fear that they are more capable than we are. So we spend more, just in case. The other side, of course, does the same. That spending will result in more cyberweapons for attack and more cybersurveillance for defense. It will result in more government control over the protocols of the Internet, and less free-market innovation in the same arena.

At worst, we might be about to enter an information-age Cold War: one with more than two “superpowers.” This is inherently destabilizing. It’s just too easy for this amount of antagonistic power and advanced weaponry to get used: for a mistaken attribution to be reacted to with a counterattack, for a misunderstanding to become a cause for offensive action, or for a minor skirmish to escalate into a full-fledged cyberwar.

Nationalism is rife on the Internet, and it’s getting worse. We need to tamp down the rhetoric.

This story was updated on April 26, 2013.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.