Is Cyber Real?

In class this week with Dr. Michael Sulmeyer, we had a particularly policy-fueled discussion. For a considerable portion of our time together, we landed on the thought-provoking issue of Russian interference with this past election, examining their actions and how the U.S. ought to have responded. I found the comparison between physical attacks and cyber attacks to raise an interesting series of questions. For, in this day and age, where the Internet holds a great deal of power in our lives, does “illegal” activity online warrant the same level of response as a crime committed in person?

Personally, I have a hard time justifying a physical response to a cyber-provocation. In the case of Russia, for example, unless their actions had caused some sort of physical repercussions, e.g. violence where people died, I don’t think a military response would have been necessary. There are plenty of cases in which online activity incited some sort of tangible action–take the online posts which organize violent protests or terrorist attacks, for example. In those instances, I think it’s much easier to argue for a strong, physical response in those cases.

In the election interference issue, I would much rather have seen an equivalent action from the U.S. Sanctions are pretty weak and clearly haven’t stopped Russia from doing what they want. Rather, I lean on the side of sneaky, anonymized action on the Russian Internet. Something like the political response, which Dr. Sulmeyer suggested, seems reasonable. Just as they undermined our democratic process, it seems best to have undermined their government, i.e. Putin, with action that results in the same type of propoganda.

At the root of this debate, moreover, lies a much more general discussion. That is, whether or not the Internet has really become so engrained in our lives that we treat everything on it as “real.” For me, there is way too much volatility online–way too much unchecked, free space–that it is hard to take everything on the net at face value. For the time being, and I could easily see this changing in the near future, I still see a distinction between real life and life on the Web, particularly when there are dire consequences in the case of physical intervention. Most importantly, war that starts as cyberwarfare should stay cyber.

Internet Governance

In this week’s discussion, we returned to exploring the history of the Internet. Our guest, Professor Zittrain, talked at length specifically about the topic of Internet governance. Even today, control over the Internet remains an important issue. In the early day’s, there were a host of organizations – IANA/Jon Postel, ICANN, etc. – which claimed to regulate the Internet in some way. In a sense, this was fine back in the day. Everyone who used the Internet probably knew each other, at least tangentially. Jon Postel knew the people to whom he was assigning domain names, and there was not really any competition at play.

Today, however, we live in an era where the Internet is largely decentralized – in theory, anyway. With so many users and so many sites serving up content, there can’t really be one entity which decides who gets what. In different countries, for example, the Internet looks vastly different, especially when comparing the loose regulation of the U.S. to, say, the tight constraints of China. Yet, on the other hand, we also have large companies like Facebook and Google, in particular, in a sense curating many Internet users’ experiences. To navigate to a website, most people search it up on Google. And, a lot of people will rely heavily on the Facebook feed for updates.

Similarly, when it comes to domain names, we have companies like GoDaddy and Amazon making profits. Here especially, one must ask, what qualifies these companies to make money off a system that is intended to be open and decentralized. It seems wrong for someone to be making a profit off of something that should be the public domain (no pun intended). Yet, the other solution is to have some agency control aspects of the Internet. Certainly, we wouldn’t want the government to poke its head into this realm, and there isn’t an organization that would handle it for free or without bias.

Perhaps then, as with the economy, the best way to make something as free as possible is to turn it into a competitive marketplace. Of course, even in our open market, we still have protections in place, to prevent monopolies, for example. The question remains then, can the Internet really remain decentralized forever, and if not, who should take the responsibility for its regulation, and to what extent?