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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.

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