August 2008


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Sam Anderson <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 30 Aug 2008 07:49:01 -0400
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August 30, 2008--

Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass the U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO — The era of the American Internet is ending.

Invented by American computer scientists during the 1970s, the  
Internet has been embraced around the globe. During the network’s  
first three decades, most Internet traffic flowed through the United  
States. In many cases, data sent between two locations within a given  
country also passed through the United States.

Engineers who help run the Internet said that it would have been  
impossible for the United States to maintain its hegemony over the  
long run because of the very nature of the Internet; it has no central  
point of control.

And now, the balance of power is shifting. Data is increasingly  
flowing around the United States, which may have intelligence — and  
conceivably military — consequences.

American intelligence officials have warned about this shift. “Because  
of the nature of global telecommunications, we are playing with a  
tremendous home-field advantage, and we need to exploit that edge,”  
Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency,  
testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006. “We also need  
to protect that edge, and we need to protect those who provide it to  

Indeed, Internet industry executives and government officials have  
acknowledged that Internet traffic passing through the switching  
equipment of companies based in the United States has proved a  
distinct advantage for American intelligence agencies. In December  
2005, The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency  
had established a program with the cooperation of American  
telecommunications firms that included the interception of foreign  
Internet communications.

Some Internet technologists and privacy advocates say those actions  
and other government policies may be hastening the shift in Canadian  
and European traffic away from the United States.

“Since passage of the Patriot Act, many companies based outside of the  
United States have been reluctant to store client information in the  
U.S.,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic  
Privacy Information Center in Washington. “There is an ongoing concern  
that U.S. intelligence agencies will gather this information without  
legal process. There is particular sensitivity about access to  
financial information as well as communications and Internet traffic  
that goes through U.S. switches.”

But economics also plays a role. Almost all nations see data networks  
as essential to economic development. “It’s no different than any  
other infrastructure that a country needs,” said K C Claffy, a  
research scientist at the Cooperative Association for Internet Data  
Analysis in San Diego. “You wouldn’t want someone owning your roads  

Indeed, more countries are becoming aware of how their dependence on  
other countries for their Internet traffic makes them vulnerable.  
Because of tariffs, pricing anomalies and even corporate cultures,  
Internet providers will often not exchange data with their local  
competitors. They prefer instead to send and receive traffic with  
larger international Internet service providers.

This leads to odd routing arrangements, referred to as tromboning, in  
which traffic between two cites in one country will flow through other  
nations. In January, when a cable was cut in the Mediterranean,  
Egyptian Internet traffic was nearly paralyzed because it was not  
being shared by local I.S.P.’s but instead was routed through European  

The issue was driven home this month when hackers attacked and  
immobilized several Georgian government Web sites during the country’s  
fighting with Russia. Most of Georgia’s access to the global network  
flowed through Russia and Turkey. A third route through an undersea  
cable linking Georgia to Bulgaria is scheduled for completion in  

Ms. Claffy said that the shift away from the United States was not  
limited to developing countries. The Japanese “are on a rampage to  
build out across India and China so they have alternative routes and  
so they don’t have to route through the U.S.”

Andrew M. Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota who  
tracks the growth of the global Internet, added, “We discovered the  
Internet, but we couldn’t keep it a secret.” While the United States  
carried 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic a decade ago, he  
estimates that portion has fallen to about 25 percent.

Internet technologists say that the global data network that was once  
a competitive advantage for the United States is now increasingly  
outside the control of American companies. They decided not to invest  
in lower-cost optical fiber lines, which have rapidly become a  
commodity business.

That lack of investment mirrors a pattern that has taken place  
elsewhere in the high-technology industry, from semiconductors to  
personal computers.

The risk, Internet technologists say, is that upstarts like China and  
India are making larger investments in next-generation Internet  
technology that is likely to be crucial in determining the future of  
the network, with investment, innovation and profits going first to  
overseas companies.

“Whether it’s a good or a bad thing depends on where you stand,” said  
Vint Cerf, a computer scientist who is Google’s Internet evangelist  
and who, with Robert Kahn, devised the original Internet routing  
protocols in the early 1970s. “Suppose the Internet was entirely  
confined to the U.S., which it once was? That wasn’t helpful.”

International networks that carry data into and out of the United  
States are still being expanded at a sharp rate, but the Internet  
infrastructure in many other regions of the world is growing even more  

While there has been some concern over a looming Internet traffic jam  
because of the rise in Internet use worldwide, the congestion is  
generally not on the Internet’s main trunk lines, but on neighborhood  
switches, routers and the wires into a house.

As Internet traffic moves offshore, it may complicate the task of  
American intelligence gathering agencies, but would not make Internet  
surveillance impossible.

“We’re probably in one of those situations where things get a little  
bit harder,” said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate  
School in Monterey, Calif., who said the United States had invested  
far too little in collecting intelligence via the Internet. “We’ve  
given terrorists a free ride in cyberspace,” he said.

Others say the eclipse of the United States as the central point in  
cyberspace is one of many indicators that the world is becoming a more  
level playing field both economically and politically.

“This is one of many dimensions on which we’ll have to adjust to a  
reduction in American ability to dictate terms of core interests of  
ours,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for  
Internet and Society at Harvard. “We are, by comparison, militarily  
weaker, economically poorer and technologically less unique than we  
were then. We are still a very big player, but not in control.”

China, for instance, surpassed the United States in the number of  
Internet users in June. Over all, Asia now has 578.5 million, or 39.5  
percent, of the world’s Internet users, although only 15.3 percent of  
the Asian population is connected to the Internet, according to  
Internet World Stats, a market research organization.

By contrast, there were about 237 million Internet users in North  
America and the growth has nearly peaked; penetration of the Internet  
in the region has reached about 71 percent.

The increasing role of new competitors has shown up in data collected  
annually by Renesys, a firm in Manchester, N.H., that monitors the  
connections between Internet providers. The Renesys rankings of  
Internet connections, an indirect measure of growth, show that the big  
winners in the last three years have been the Italian Internet  
provider Tiscali, China Telecom and the Japanese telecommunications  
operator KDDI.

Firms that have slipped in the rankings have all been American:  
Verizon, Savvis, AT&T, Qwest, Cogent and AboveNet.

“The U.S. telecommunications firms haven’t invested,” said Earl  
Zmijewski, vice president and general manager for Internet data  
services at Renesys. “The rest of the world has caught up. I don’t see  
the AT&T’s and Sprints making the investments because they see  
Internet service as a commodity.”