A Walled Wide Web for Nervous Autocrats
This is a Wall Street Journal Report by EVGENY MOROZOV
At the end of 2010, the “open-source” software movement, whose activists tend to be fringe academics and ponytailed computer geeks, found an unusual ally: the Russian government. Vladimir Putin signed a 20-page executive order requiring all public institutions in Russia to replace proprietary software, developed by companies like Microsoft and Adobe, with free open-source alternatives by 2015.
The move will save billions of dollars in licensing fees, but Mr. Putin’s motives are not strictly economic. In all likelihood, his real fear is that Russia’s growing dependence on proprietary software, especially programs sold by foreign vendors, has immense implications for the country’s national security. Free open-source software, by its nature, is unlikely to feature secret back doors that lead directly to Langley, Va.
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Nor is Russia alone in its distrust of commercial software from abroad. Just two weeks after Mr. Putin’s executive order, Iran’s minister of information technology, citing security concerns, announced plans for a national open-source operating system. China has also expressed a growing interest. When state-owned China Mobile recently joined the Linux Foundation, the nonprofit entity behind the most famous open-source project, one of the company’s executives announced—ominously to the ears of some—that the company was “looking forward to contributing to Linux on a global scale.”
Information technology has been rightly celebrated for flattening traditional boundaries and borders, but there can be no doubt that its future will be shaped decisively by geopolitics. Over the past few years, policymakers around the world have had constant reminders of their growing dependence on—and vulnerability to—the new technology: the uncovering of the mysterious China-based GhostNet network, which spied on diplomatic missions around the globe; the purported crippling of Iran’s nuclear capability by the Stuxnet virus; and, of course, the whole WikiLeaks affair. Governments are taking a closer look at who is providing their hardware, software and services—and they are increasingly deciding that it is dangerous not to develop independent national capabilities of their own.
Open-source software can allay some of these security concerns. Though such systems are more democratic than closed ones, they are also easier to manipulate, especially for governments with vast resources at their command. But open-source solutions can’t deal with every perceived threat. As Google learned, the Chinese government continues to see Western search engines as a challenge to its carefully managed presentation of controversial subjects. Similarly, email can be read by the host government of the company offering the service, and the transmission of sensitive data can be intercepted via secret back doors and sent to WikiLeaks or its numerous local equivalents.
For these reasons, more governments are likely to start designating Internet services as a strategic industry, with foreign firms precluded from competing in politically sensitive niches. The Turkish government has emerged as the leading proponent of such “information independence,” floating the idea of both a national search engine and a national email system. Authorities in Russia, China and Iran have debated similar proposals.
Judging by last year’s standoff between the BlackBerry maker Research in Motion and the governments of India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, questions of access also will play a growing role in shaping technology. If a government suspects that the U.S. National Security Agency has arranged to be able to retrieve private emails sent with BlackBerry’s secure encryption technology, it starts to wonder why it doesn’t have similar streams of intelligence data, from BlackBerry as well as from services like Gmail and Skype. At a minimum, more governments will demand that data servers base their operations in their own jurisdictions, inconveniencing global Internet companies that have based their business plans on the assumption that they could run their Indian operations from Iowa.
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