The Internet as a Cold War Weapon
The history of the Internet winds through a lot of territory. But America’s fight against communism and the Soviet Union looms over almost every part of the story.
With the global Internet War heating up like never before (even Dmitry Medvedev is getting in on the action now), I remembered that I’ve been forgetting to publish the preface I wrote to the Russian edition of my book Surveillance Valley: «The Internet as a weapon.»
I’ve been meaning to do it for a year now. And I’m not gonna wait any more...
I wrote the text while sitting at a friend’s dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, right before the book went to print in the summer of 2019. Rereading what I wrote now, I realize that the book — and the preface — is more relevant than ever.
I focus on the American side of the Internet’s history because, the Internet is an American creation. These days, though, America no longer has a monopoly on this technology. Other countries and societies, including Russia, now routinely use this network as a weapon — both internationally and domestically. Yet the underlying American history of the Internet remains.
Check it out below.
In 2014, President Vladimir Putin made headlines around the world when he casually described the Internet as a hostile technology developed by the CIA: “Всё это возникло на первом этапе, на заре интернета, как спецпроект ЦРУ США. Чего уж там, так и развивается.”
Putin’s comment, delivered at a journalism conference in St. Petersburg, was immediately ridiculed in America. The very idea that the Internet could have been created by an American intelligence agency was dismissed as a nutty conspiracy theory — something made up by a paranoid, out of touch authoritarian leader who was deeply afraid of the democratic power of the Internet and willing to peddle the most crazy lies in order to justify putting this egalitarian technology under his control.
I was in California at the time and had just started working on this book — investigating Google’s ties to American intelligence agencies and digging into declassified and obscure military archives dating back to the time the Internet was created. And I watched this media controversy with amusement and disbelief. This was a year after Edward Snowden had blown the whistle on America’s digital surveillance apparatus and revealed that the US government had for years used the Internet as a giant spy machine. The documents he stole from the National Security Agency made it clear that almost no device or transmission wire was outside its reach, and that the biggest and most respected companies in Silicon Valley were in on it — secretly partnering with with American intelligence agencies to turn their platforms into a vast surveillance feeder system. What was also clear was that Snowden’s revelations were just a taste of something bigger and older: the Internet was much more intertwined with the US government and American geopolitical power than people realized.
And yet, reporters in America seemed unaffected by these disclosures. Many still acted like the Internet was at its core a neutral technology driven by egalitarian values — that it was global force of good, unencumbered by spy agencies, geopolitical struggle, or the American Empire. And anyone who argued otherwise, well, they were paranoid conspiracy theorists who couldn’t be be taken seriously — and that included Putin.
But just because someone was paranoid didn’t mean they’re wrong.
As I found out while writing this book, Putin was right about the Internet. Or, to be clear: he was more right than wrong. His only mistake was that a slightly different US government “agency” created the Internet: the Advanced Research Project Agency — a spy-laden outfit inside the Pentagon whose job was to develop high-tech weapons that could be used to counter the spread of communism around the world.
But that’s a minor detail. He was right on the bigger picture: The Internet didn’t begin with private companies or geeky entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. It began with the US military — in the jungles of Vietnam and inside secret NATO spy stations. When it was developed in the late 1960s, it was envisioned as a weapon: a direct technological extension of the Cold War. And it continues to be a weapon today — vastly more powerful in its current privatized and commercial form than its original military creators ever imagined.
The history of the Internet winds through a lot of cultural and political territory, but the Cold War and America’s fight against communism and the Soviet Union is something that looms over just about every part of the story. It is the central, overarching conflict that birthed and shaped the Internet. There would be no Internet without it — at least not in the shape it exists in today.
And that makes this book very personal. Because my own life is a product of this struggle between America and the Soviet Union. As a Soviet-American who grew up in Silicon Valley surrounded by computer engineers…
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