Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

The Infrastructure of the Internet and the View Across the Bering Straits

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 15, 2008

For some months this spring and summer, as part of a work-related project, I took part in an email-list “discussion” on issues pertaining to the infrastructure of the Internet.  Participants were mostly from the US with a sprinkling of others from as far away as New Zealand.

As the list took on a life of its own, I noticed a trend.  The more vocal of the US participants held forth rather than discussed and in doing so sounded oddly like the blustering right-wing American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.  This was not only a matter of their tone and propensity toward ad homonym argument but also of their preoccupations.  Like Limbaugh, they were vituperative about America’s “regulators” and “regulations” and also seemingly blind to the achievements and problems of the rest of the world and the approaches of other countries to the issues they face.

The current economic woes in the US — e.g. the mortgage and housing market collapses, the folding of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the bankruptcy of major banking/investment houses — appear to be functions of inadequate regulation and ineffectual government involvement.  The same goes for the messes that attend to the country’s power grid, transportation infrastructure, and health care and educational systems.  Imaginary “markets” as exalted by the US right-wing are no substitute for responsive and effective governance.  (For an interesting take — by no means identical to my own — on the importance of quality rather than quantity of regulation and the across-the-board failure of regulation under the Bush administration click here)

After the Second World War, the US economy comprised roughly four-fifths of the total world economy — but that was 60 years ago.  Today, the worldviews of many Americans appear stuck in post-WWII self-congratulation. Oddly, despite the phrase “world wide web,” such US-centrism seems to effect many local internet types as well.  But there is more to the internet than the US alone. An item in the Times this August (click here) pointed out that the majority of the physical infrastructure of the internet is now located outside of the US as is most of the net’s traffic.

The Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia this summer highlighted other issues related to internet infrastructure and the fragmentation and vulnerability of the web.  That Georgia’s internet access ran through Russia made the country vulnerable to cyber-attacks and to potential isolation financially and communications-wise.  A new cable now being strung under the Black Sea will, in the future, route Georgia’s internet traffic via Bulgaria rather than Russia.  But, physical links via the Black Sea are by no means immune from compromise and Bulgaria, although now a member of NATO and of the EU, is a notoriously corrupt country with deep financial ties to Russia’s “black” economy and with absolutely no culture of adherence contractual obligations.

The US is now faced with the chilling possibility that the governor of the state of Alaska — who claims that the physical proximity of her state to Russia and the vistas of Russian as seen from Alaska across the Bering Straits give her requistite background in foreign affaris — has a fair shot at becoming the successor to the US presidency.  I hope my colleagues in future debates on the infrastructure of the internet will take a less myopic view of the rest of the world than the Alaska governor does.

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