When the newly-commercialized Internet exploded into public consciousness in the mid-1990's, there was no shortage of sages eager to explain the nature of the net, and how it would affect society. The fundamental qualities of the Internet were seen largely through American eyes, with the assumption that the Internet would change global society far more than that society would change the Internet. Although this was correct in some regards, the changes have happened in both directions.
The most common political assertion about the Internet was that it would, by its very nature, advance the cause of liberty worldwide. As John Gilmore famously wrote (and as was later attributed to several others), "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." This reflects a key technical aspect of the Internet's design, a distributed structure intended to survive a major nuclear war. Libertarian prophets gleefully predicted that the Internet would enable a flowering of American-style freedom around the world, and many found libertarianism a natural fit with the Internet age.
Much of this is correct, as far as it goes; the Internet's architecture does, on balance, tend to discourage censorship and facilitate liberty. However, there's a big difference between resilience and invulnerability. John Gilmore would have been more accurate if he'd said that the net tries to route around censorship. While the early Internet promoted free speech and facilitated political dissent, the enemies of those freedoms were studying the Internet, understanding its limitations, and plotting their countermeasures. Gradually but steadily, national and economic interests are becoming more effective counterweights to the Internet's predisposition towards liberty, and those counterweights are pushing even America itself in the wrong direction.
Seen through the eyes of American ideals, optimism, and exceptionalism, the opponents of Internet freedom were simply reactionaries, fighting a doomed rearguard battle. After all, the network was designed to survive a nuclear war by dynamically rerouting data; what hope did the censors have? Like America's military and cultural exports, the Internet was another tool destined to turn the whole world into America, or something like it.
The first strong hint that this might not be true was China's announcement, in 1998, that it was building what would come to be known as the Great Firewall of China. For the most part, Internet seers -- myself included -- laughed at this public commitment to an impossible goal. But with sufficient investment -- and five years of work -- China built a remarkably effective firewall that today keeps most of the population -- all but the most motivated and sophisticated -- from accessing Internet sites the government doesn't like. They were able to do this in large part by using the power of the government to regulate International data connections and requiring that they all go through the firewall. The Internet interprets censorship as a bug and routes around it, but the Chinese government interprets free speech as a bug and blocks it, by forcing the Internet to use a non-standard architecture (effectively a single routing path).
Other examples abound, if you look for them. In the 90's we believed that the Internet would create a wonderfully level playing field, allowing entrepreneurs in the most remote corner of the earth to sell things directly to first world consumers. Instead, a few oligopolistic players such as Amazon have become ubiquitous middlemen, with market-making power. The distributed nature of the net was supposed to open up diverse sources of connectivity, breaking up the near-monopolies of telecom companies -- also not precisely what actually happened.
Most dishearteningly, however, while the cyberlibertarians were carrying on about the inherent freedoms of the net and the need to protect user privacy -- very American ideals, to be sure -- the American government itself, in the form of the NSA, was undermining those ideals to a breathtaking degree. Any attempt to sell non-Americans on the principle that America's ideals should rule the Internet has to face the reality of America's actions.
As China has molded the Internet to its own ideals, other countries are doing so with varying degrees of success. Iran, for example, is unlikely to match China's Great Firewall without a great deal more control of its international connectivity, and a substantial increase in its technical expertise, but there's no reason they can't do this eventually. (For that matter, China could sell them the technology and the service.) I fear that we will soon see some countries making good on the oft-made threat (even in the US) to require strong proof of identity to use the Internet. It will be hard to implement, but so was the Great Firewall; it awaits only a sufficiently motivated and sophisticated government.
My greatest fear, however, is a race to the bottom. Now that China has walled itself off, other countries are trying to imitate it. If a few countries manage to require ID's, others will race to follow, perhaps even the US. The Internet surprised human society in the 1990's, bursting upon it like a tsunami, sweeping away many repressive ideals in its wake. But that wave was a one-time phenomenon. It is easy to imagine that over time, just as governments rebuild after a tsunami, they will "fix the damage" caused by the Internet's first wave. In the end, we'll be lucky if the Internet looks like America in America, let alone anywhere else.