The owners and controllers of cyberspace
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #38

Communities are vulnerable to attacks on their primary infrastructure. Communication, particularly over the Internet and on-line services that collectively form cyberspace, is fast becoming the most important infrastructure of all. The world's infobahns and their users can be attacked in various ways, not all of them explicit or apparent. The simplest is to control the traffic - much of the utility of cyberspace is based on a free flow of information.

Any network, whether built to carry cars, phone calls or computer programs, is dependent on its points of intersection. Without crossroads - telephone exchanges, routers and satellites that direct traffic between ends of the world - you would need a direct connection for each communication, which is like having a separate road connecting each city with every other. But while such a crossroad provides a hub spinning incoming data to several destinations, it also provides the ideal staging post for a cyberspatial coup - someone has to own it, and could in theory, control it.

Ninety-five percent of the world's news is distributed, and therefore controlled, by four huge agencies. Some people have argued that they use their monopoly power to direct the world's affairs from behind the scenes, which is plausible if highly unlikely. With greater access to communication though, the agencies' control (and that of other official sources) over information is greatly reduced, as everyone is a potential source. Any individual is free to broadcast data to a large audience, without exorbitant capital investment.

This essential freedom of expression, as it were, could also be threatened by the owners of crucial crossroads in the information highways. While the total expanse of cyberspace is immense, the bottlenecks through which traffic is routed are many. One could imagine some evil organization stealthily buying into hubs in the networks and then restricting access to some elite, or worse still, threatening to disrupt traffic and holding the world to ransom. One could indeed imagine such things, but in fact they are almost impossible to occur in reality.

The Internet, which provides the technical model for all of cyberspace, was built to survive a Soviet nuclear attack and the ensuing nuclear holocaust. It works by being about as decentralized as you can possibly get - when data moves from one point to another, it is thrown into a jungle of twisted paths. The flexible methods used mean that if traffic meets an obstacle, it finds its way through a mass of alternative routes. To shut the network down (and not just cause temporary though possibly significant problems) you would have to own all of it - and even then, a few cheap satellite launches later the net would be reborn, if not back to normal.

While cyberspace is inherently resistant to monopolies and control, it remains that way not just because of the technology behind it, but because its citizens are fiercely possessive of their freedoms. What society will need to learn quickly is that technology now allows free expression for everyone, even those without printing presses and billions of dollars of capital. If this new freedom is to survive, it must be used.

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