By Paul Vixie, Ph.D.
2015-04-10 update: Citizen Lab published a detailed report of "China’s Great Cannon”, used in the attacks against GitHub and GreatFire.org.
This week my friends at GitHub are enduring an overwhelming distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS), which comes to them directly from the systems and networks of the Great Firewall of China. The evidence of what's occurring and where it's coming from are incontrovertible. What's murky is what this attack means for the future of nations.
Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her excellent book "The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam", opened my eyes to the extraordinary innovation of "the state" as against its precursors "the family", "the tribe", "the faith", and so on. Other innovations, such as freedom and justice that did not have to come from the barrel of a gun, were the result of mankind's ability, through the innovation of "the state", to make common cause at scale. That scalable common cause has in turn been the keystone of progress in the arts and in the sciences for at least the last thousand years or so.
The Role of Nations in Humanity’s Future is Unclear
The Internet has a way of disrupting things. So it is with the role of nations. Before the Internet, it would have been an act of war for a sovereign country to project force inside another country with the deliberate intent and effect of harming an individual or a corporation. And where kinetic force is involved, that expectation still holds. But if the force projected is entirely within the Internet, it's "the new normal." This "new normal" confounds because so much of humanity's activities now take place within the Internet or at the very least are carried or delivered by the Internet.
What this means for the role of nations in humanity's future is unclear. Society is no longer based on geography — it's possible to make common cause with large numbers of people we don't live close to, but the laws and customs and taxes of where we each live still dominate our affairs. And no matter how many Facebook friends we might have, or how many like-minded fellow travelers we share our thoughts with, the Internet experience does not yet translate into the same scale of common cause a nation of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions or billions of people, sharing a food supply, defended by navies and armies.
It's not the first time that the Internet has begun to make obsolete or disrupt an old way of doing things without yet having developed any practical new ways of doing those same things. Bitcoin, for example, offers an alternative to fiat currencies, but does not offer a tool to national governments similar to the control over the money supply or foreign exchange. Some Bitcoin proponents say that this is all fine by them, but since I know that national governments are going to be hell-bent on having tools like this, a future with Bitcoin is an uncertain one — while we figure out what will replace currency as a tool of national policy.
Many argue that the era of nations is passing, and that the need for nations in the future is at best unclear. Certainly there are plenty examples of national power being abused, leading to the death of many millions of people throughout history. Even the United States which likes to see itself as the paragon of governance "of the people, by the people, and for the people" has a record of corruption, abuse, and evil both within and outside its borders that's comparable to other nations whose slogans are not so fanciful. As Barbara Tuchman wrote [Ibid],
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?
To those who ponder a future without nations, be aware that a nation is among other things both sword and shield to a population at scale, and that as long as there is even one nation, we will all live in nations. I just can't see how a bunch of post-nationalists or anarchists living in peace without societal structure would be able to arm themselves against a organized nations who believed — for whatever reason, and rightly or wrongly — that all people on earth should live as they live, worship as they worship, pay the taxes they pay, or subscribe to the same vision of humanity's future as they do.
Why Society Loses When Nation-States Play Power Games
So, last year it was revealed that the United States had been tapping into, and tampering with, China's three largest mobile phone carriers. This may be China's justification for attacking GitHub this week: perhaps the message is, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap." If so, this creates some concerns for me, because for every move, there is a countermove, and in matters of sovereignty, it's essential to be respected. Historically, these power games end when society itself loses the capacity for further struggle. I would prefer that we decide, rationally, in mutual self interest, on an enforceable end state, and then adopt it.
And in any case I see a larger question as salient: what is the future of nations, if now that we have the Internet, the common cause we make at scale to create "a state" does not include the common defense of life, liberty, or property from powers foreign or domestic? As a distributed systems technologist, I aver that there is no such thing as security at scale, that any system that has humans in it will be extremely unreliable, and that what China's LU Wei calls "Internet Sovereignty" cannot be assured among connected nations. Will the Internet teach us that human society cannot survive without closed borders?
For the United States, and China, and all other nations now using or contemplating the use of the Internet as a loophole around international law and treaty conventions, allowing a nation to project force into another nation, targeting individuals or corporations or even government assets, all without the inconvenience of declaring war and with the expressed hope of not having the other guys declare war either — be careful what you wish for. Not just because we all live in glass houses and you shouldn't therefore throw stones, but because nations exist for a reason, and if we take that reason away, the resulting instability will certainly be called Folly, no matter who wins or loses in the short term.
Dr. Paul Vixie is the CEO of Farsight Security, Inc.