American Dominance and the Internet

Posted to HotWired 25 June 98

Michael Heinz (coderhino) asks, Read any good posts from a Cuban lately? The quick answer is: yes, I get posts from Cuba from time to time, and smoke the odd Cuban cigar, too. The question is an interesting one: could the United States control the internet if it wanted to. The answer, increasingly, is no. Just in the same way that the United States cannot enforce an embargo on Cuba.

Heintz opines,

Legend says the 'Net "routes around censorship" but when nearly all the packets flow through one or two choke points, the people who control those choke points are going to have a lot to say about what passes through them.
Probably most internet traffic either originates in the United States or ends up in the United States. That's why so much traffic flows through, say, MCI. But foreign-to-foreign traffic does not necessarily flow through the United States. The fact that it does may reflect the fact that London-to-Boston and Boston-to-Paris are better links than London-to-Paris. But the existence of traffic in Bostom does not imply that there is no direct link between London and Paris.

Moreover, as the internet continues to be constructed worldwide, more and better foreign-to-foreign links will be contructed. If the United States attempts to regulate traffic from certain regions, this trend is likely to accelerate. Ironically, the best way for the United States to lose its influence over the internet would be for it to attempt to exert that influence.

Heintz continues:

Let's construct an extreme scenario: Some Dutch hackers concerned with the American "obsession" with porn and flood America with dirty pictures, coupled with instructions for making pipe bombs and a manifesto urging Americans to overthrow their government. In the resulting hysteria, Trent Lott gets a law passed requiring MCI to stop passing any traffic that originates in Holland. Who would get hurt more?
Some Dutch traffic with the United States would be cut off. Dutch traffic with the rest of the world would continue. A lot of Dutch traffic with the United States would continue, the packets being sent to a server in another country, then relayed (with a new country of origin) to the United States. Remember the anonymous remailler that was set up in Finland (I know, I know, it's closed now, but you get the idea...).

Heintz writes,

The point is, I don't think America is going to let it's dominant 'Net position just fade away, the way the Economist seems to suggest. Ending that dominance will require both political and commercial investment by those who want the dominance ended. Commerical, in that they need to create more hubs and cables so that fewer packets have to pass through the USA on their way to a non-USA destination. Political in that they will have to jolly America along until the commercial end is ready.
The preceding paragraph seems to suggest that only the United States has the commercial wherewithall to construct portions of the internet. Now the United States may be in better shape than, say, Ghana, but certainly many nations have both the capital and infastructure capacity to build the bandwidth it needs. Again, consider Canada. With its own national backbone and cheap access available nationally, it is well positioned to operate its own segment of the internet without the United States.

The internet would be a lot less useful and enjoyable with American participation. Of that there is no doubt. Almost half the sites I accessed today have been American sites, and about a third of my email from American sources. But this is true of any area of enterprise. Much of the world's air travel, shipping, postage, telephone calls, and even road traffic flow through the United States. But shutting the United States, while it would diminish all these means of commerce, would not disable them.

Heintz concludes,

Am I wrong? Has the infrastructure changed in the last couple of years? What keeps the USA from adopting that kind of "nuclear solution" to Internet traffic it doesn't like?
You are wrong. American airlines do not fly into Cuba. That does not stop air traffic into Cuba. American tourists do not visit Libya. That does not stop people from visiting Libya.

Setting up an internet connection between two points in incredibly easy. It's a lot cheaper than building a highway or rail line. And just as the rest of the world has managed to build, and could use, their transportation infastructure without the United States, so also could it build, and use, the information highway.

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