The internet has changed dramatically over the decades, with governments using it as a propaganda tool in an attempt to stifle dissent.
The world wide web turned 30 on Tuesday. A revolutionary concept when it was created, it was a means of connecting existing computer systems into a network and created a browser to link different parts of the internet.
Since then, the world of communication has made huge progress over the years, using rapidly-advancing technology to spread its reach, and connect the globe in ways that were previously unimaginable. But the process hasn’t come without challenges. Namely, the growing attempts to control the traffic that runs through cyberspace.
In late 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States voted to roll back net neutrality protections in the country. The move prompted Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the web, to speak out.
“This is a dark day for the internet,” he said. “By rolling back net neutrality rules, the FCC has cleared the path towards a dramatic overturn of how the internet works in the US.
“Rather than preserving the internet as a free market for ideas, the FCC has given a handful of companies the power to decide what lives and dies online – ignoring the millions of Americans who called for the protection of net neutrality.
“Now is not the time to accept defeat. We must explore all judicial and political options in order to save the free and open internet.”
A handful of lawsuits were filed against the FCC in January 2019. In one case, 21 state attorneys general, led by Eric Schneiderman of New York state, said the agency had broken federal law, calling the action “arbitrary and capricious”. Lawsuits were also filed by public interest groups, including Free Press and Public Knowledge.
Network neutrality essentially occurs when Internet service providers allow access to all content and applications regardless of their source. The neutrality is violated when certain products or websites are favoured or blocked by these providers. At the moment, network owners are not allowed to discriminate against information by slowing, changing, or blocking the transfer of any data online. Net neutrality has been a source of contention between powerful governments around the world and the citizens they’re meant to serve.
On Sunday, thousands of Russians protested in Moscow and other cities against tighter internet controls that were backed by lawmakers last month, which some Russian media outlets have termed an online “iron curtain”. The bill has passed its first of three readings in the 450-seat lower chamber of parliament called the Duma. It still has to pass all readings before it is sent to the upper house, or the Federation Council.
The legislators say the restrictions are needed to prevent foreign meddling in Russia’s affairs. But opposition activists fear that it’s an attempt to clamp down on dissent. In recent years, Russia has tried to block access to certain websites and messaging services.
Moscow wants to take the internet offline in the coming weeks to create an independent internet system that would reroute its network to skirt around the world wide web, and even shut off from it. The move would allow for Moscow to route Russian web traffic through points that are controlled by state authorities. This would also give Russians the ability to continue using their own internet system even if the entire country were to be cut off from foreign infrastructure. It’s a similar move to that of China, whose internet restrictions have been dubbed ‘The Great Firewall of China’.
Moscow’s decision comes in response to a new US National Cyber Strategy that was passed last September. It essentially states that the US will act offensively and defensively to threats in cyberspace.
‘Pillar IV’ of the strategy states that the US will advance American influence by promoting “long-term openness, interoperability, security, and reliability of the internet, which supports and is reinforced by United States interests”, through building international cyber capacity.
Governments have, in the past, attempted ‘cyberwars’ to disrupt networks in rival countries.
In 2014, the US accused a North Korean spy of a cyber-attack against the Sony Corporation, and again in 2017 for targeting the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), cancelling medical operations and diverting ambulances, while affecting computers in more than 150 countries.
Bangladesh and the Philippines have sued and counter-sued each other over a cyber-heist that cost the Bangladesh central bank’s account with the US Federal Reserve in New York $81 million in 2016.
And then there’s Stuxnet, the digital weapon that started it all.
In 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, disrupting operations and infiltrating software. Later reports revealed a joint collaboration between the United States and Israel, an idea that was hatched during the Bush administration and executed under that of Obama.
Even common hackers have succeeded in grinding companies and government systems to a temporary halt.
Late last year, the cybersecurity of the US Departments of State and Defense were significantly compromised. The email boxes of hundreds of unclassified staffers at the State Department were hacked, and ‘unidentified hackers’ breached travel records and other information of thousands of employees at the Defense Department.
The internet itself was initially used by the US Department of Defense, when it created the first working computer network called ARPANET in the 1960s, which then went on to form the basis of the modern internet.
Decades later in 1989, computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed the first formalised plan for the system, turning it into what we know today as the web.
That free-flow of information that we enjoy on the web has come under assault. Corporations and politicians have been trying to influence the choices we make. Lobby groups representing the biggest mobile and home Internet providers - including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile - even filed a lawsuit against California state for passing a net neutrality law, citing unfair regulations on them.
But even with the world wide web under threat from various factors, it still serves as a tool to allow for free speech and demand accountability of those in power.
While world leaders may turn to social media outlets to spread propaganda, attempt to control the masses and try to deceive them, those same systems have been used time and again to expose the lies, voice major concerns and mobilise efforts across the globe.