I just read this article that says that Angela Merkel wants Europe to have its own network. Now, maybe I’m not understanding the story, and maybe the reporter didn’t understand what the chancellor said, and maybe the chancellor doesn’t understand how the Internet works. But it seems to me that if a laptop in Berlin connects to a German ISP and sends an email to a French ISP and that email goes from the French SMTP server down a link to a laptop in Paris, there shouldn’t be any trans-Atlantic hops to that trip.
I totally understand how everyone in the world who isn’t an employee of the United States security apparatus is cheesed off and paranoid about the NSA’s compulsive spying on every bit that crosses a U.S. territorial border. Yep, that’s uncool. And, sure, if that laptop in Berlin is sending email via Gmail (or Hotmail, or Yahoo! mail) or is conducting commerce with Amazon or FedEx, then eventually those bits will cross into the U.S. and become part of a hard drive that U.S. spooks are peering at. I guess that’s the scenario that Ms. Merkel is trying to avoid.
So, rather than go to the trouble of building a whole new Internet that doesn’t have the United States on it, which would require either severing all contact with the U.S. or running a huge (metric) fuckload of fresh cable, how about the E.U. just do the time warp and have their own version of the dot com bubble? Pretend it’s 1996 all over Europe and instead of using Google and Amazon, maybe they can develop their own ecommerce industry. I know that a few places are trying.
Okay, above the fold was the original post, which I dashed off because if I don’t get these thoughts down then they go nowhere. But it was snarky and obnoxious and not very constructive, which probably won’t lead anyone to take the problems seriously. So here’s some unpacking.
- The U.S. is spying on people indiscriminately and eagerly. Other nations consider this an infringement upon their sovereignty.
- Angela Merkel (according to the BBC story to which I linked at the beginning) is proposing a separate network for Europe. A physical (I suppose) barrier to prevent any European bits from going anywhere near the NSA. Honestly, I can’t say I blame her, but I think this won’t happen and if it did, I don’t think it would work. I think it won’t happen because there is just so much money being made as a result of the Internet being, well, an Internet, that economic pressures will override political paranoia. I don’t think it would work because if such a distinct network were created, what would people do with it? Who would use it? All the traffic that’s being spied on is being spied on because people want to talk across bits of the network that the U.S. can get its tentacles into. Create a separate network that is completely isolated and no-one will use it or someone will build a bridge to hook it up to the big network.
- Even if the physical infrastructure got built and there was enough political will to make that happen, what will people in Europe do with it? The EU would then be in a position of having a network without Amazon, without Google, without Yahoo!, and without Hotmail. Not a big loss, one may snark, but what are the EU citizens going to use instead? The EU will then have to start micromanaging the tech sector. Quick, build some e-commerce giants! Now, integrate them! This is what I meant by rewinding the clock to the latter half of the 1990s and doing the dot com bubble all over again. Except, while Europe does that, the rest of the world that’s still connected to the big Internet will keep moving forward. Google will have been destroyed by someone else even more rapacious and capable, and Europe will be left behind. That’s no way to plan your economy.
- Meanwhile, there’s a plethora of examples in recent history of command economies Not Working Well. I refer you to other sources to read up on Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the many 5 year plans of the Soviet Union, and even the United States’ own attempts to dictate the exact development of particular sectors of the economy. If every MEP were to come home to their constituents and say, “Listen up, you-all! You have got until 2018 to develop a parallel communication and commerce network that is utterly disconnected from the United States. Hop to it!” well, it might look like it’s happening, but I don’t think it would come to pass. Governments are just bad at knowing exactly how people (markets) are going to behave in the future. They don’t have to feel bad about it – everybody is bad at it – but it does mean it’s a very risky proposition to trust all the decisions to a single entity.
- I think a better way to proceed might be to refuse to allow any companies to do business in the Eurozone unless they do it from infrastructure located in the Eurozone and to prohibit the transport of customer data out of the Eurozone. Hard to do, and not a good idea at that simplistic level, but maybe there’s some fruit there. Ultimately, Merkel and the rest of the world are smart not to bet on the United States having a change of heart and deciding to go ahead and stop doing illegal surveillance.