‘Egypt Leaves the Internet.’ The statement from Internet monitoring firm Renesys was far from the most dramatic headline to emerge from the just-ended standoff between ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and demonstrators demanding an end to his 30-year rule. Indeed, when considering the Mubarak government’s systematic repression of its people—protesters attacked by plain-clothes thugs, detainees reportedly tortured, journalists harassed and arrested—an Internet blackout seems almost routine.
But this reflexive response to large-scale dissent has set a potential precedent for dealing with civil unrest that could have far-reaching implications. The shutdown of Egypt’s four big Internet service providers put an estimated 93 percent of the country’s networks beyond the reach of its citizens. It was, says Renesys’ James Cowie, ‘an action unprecedented in Internet history.’ Plenty of governments around the world censor the Internet. The Mubarak regime, though, opted to block it entirely.
Internet access in Egypt was restored within a week. But what the Mubarak regime did as an ad hoc emergency measure, others are doing on a more permanent and systematic basis. North Korea is a prime example.
In December’s Pacific Review, academics Cheng Chen, Kyungmin Ko and Ji-Yong Lee outlined Pyongyang’s alleged plan to build an Internet with North Korean characteristics. They estimate that at present, Internet access in North Korea is restricted to ‘no more than a few thousand people in Pyongyang.’ Others—privileged elites in the major cities—have to make do with a domestic intranet. Built in 2002, it encompasses ‘several web sites’ including email, e-commerce and chat room services.
But North Korea has apparently outgrown this arrangement, and its intranet is reportedly no longer able to handle an increasing volume of information. According to the authors, Kim Jong-il’s regime has realized that blocking the Internet in its entirety is a recipe for ‘continuing technological backwardness,’ and so it has resolved to ‘relax its death grip over the use of the Internet’ as part of its economic development strategy.
What will this entail? According to Kim Heung-kwang, a computer scientist who defected from North Korea, the government has developed a ‘roadmap’ to broaden access, in a heavily controlled form. This roadmap is said to be a seven-year plan that’s heavily focused on monitoring, filtering and blocking information. A series of controls is supposed to act as a ‘mosquito net.’ Bad things—new ideas, news and culture—would be kept out. Good things, such as foreign investment, would be allowed through. The final stage of the roadmap is supposed to be the opening up of the Internet ‘to enterprises, organizations and the general public.’
Such an approach would certainly be consistent with remarks attributed to Kim Jong-il by the Yonhap News Agency in 2007. ‘I’m an Internet expert too,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It’s all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired. If that problem is addressed, there’s no reason not to open’ the Internet.
The regime’s goal, according to the defector, is not to allow free personal access to the Internet, but rather to permit ‘North Korean Internet users to access the Internet within a specific time and limited hours, and with restricted sources and defined ranges, and only for public benefits.’
Of course, all of this means that what North Korea is creating isn’t the web in any recognizable form. Instead, what the regime is essentially doing is building a walled garden app.
On the World Wide Web, content is stored on billions of interlinked web pages. But in walled garden apps, content is controlled by the creator—self-contained and often unlinked. Thus, the BBC News app for the iPhone features news only from the BBC. The ridiculously popular ‘Angry Birds’ app contains exactly what its name suggests and little else.
In an article in August titled ‘The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet,’ Wired Editor Chris Anderson examined the ‘move from the wide-open Web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.’ It’s driven, says Anderson, by changing preferences and changing technology: The appeal of exploring the web has given way to the convenience of ‘dedicated platforms.’ An increasing proportion of people are accessing the Internet through handheld devices (mainly smart phones, but also tablets like the iPad), which have smaller screens better suited to individual apps than to browsers.
Not everyone welcomes the trend toward walled garden apps. Internet entrepreneur Steven Johnson recently complained: ‘this year, for the first time in my adult life, unlinkable information began growing at a meaningful clip.' But it’s a trend driven by a familiar trade-off: consumers want convenience and value certain brands; producers want better revenue models than the web generally affords.
But a walled garden state of the kind envisaged by the North Korean ‘roadmap’ would be a totalitarian mirror image of self-contained apps. There would be no equivalent trade-off between government and citizen. Internet users subject to ‘mosquito net’ filtering would be completely cut off from what Anderson calls the ‘wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative web where everyone is free to create what they want.’
So why go to the trouble of building a walled garden? North Korea’s government, say the researchers, ‘has largely adopted a “reactive” attitude toward the Internet as a potential political threat.’ It’s suspicious of both domestic dissent (online ‘samizdata’) and foreign meddling (as it would doubtless see ‘21st century statecraft’ practised by the US State Department).
Needless to say, North Korea is an extreme case, while Egypt’s emergency blackout is a path open to virtually any regime facing ‘difficulties.’ But the Egypt example also demonstrates that autocrats who deny their people access to inconvenient content outside the bounds of a walled garden will still face resistance.
The response to Egypt’s Internet blackout was immediate and self-organising, starting when Shervin Pishevar, a technology entrepreneur based in California, posted a message on Twitter: ‘I need volunteers to help build mobile ad hoc mesh networking hidden in backpacks/cars/rooftops powered by satellite that can't be blocked.’
Thus began an international effort to get ‘mesh network’ software into Egypt, to allow individual laptops to communicate with each other. The goal, Pishevar told The Daily Beast, was ‘a kind of secondary Internet, one that would not be blockable.’ Google also launched an Egypt-specific workaround to let people post Twitter messages by phone.
Pishevar says he now wants to take the ‘mesh network’ technology to ‘any country where there is dictatorship…My dream is that in my lifetime we can get rid of dictatorships.’
This is the new ‘freedom agenda’ facing architects of walled garden states: not the policy of any particular government, but the realm of activists, engineers and entrepreneurs converging to form coalitions of the willing.
Walled garden apps might well represent the future of a predominantly handheld Internet, but no one would want to actually live in one. Attempts to create walled garden states—virtual carve-outs from an interdependent international society—seem unambiguously to represent a throwback to the past.