Among the more stubborn myths of the '90s is the claim that the Pentagon developed the Internet to withstand the crippling effects of a nuclear attack. An enemy might shower us with atomic bombs, it is thought, but those of us still alive afterward would be able to communicate in cyberspace.
This is not the case, says Defense Department official Howard Frank, widely recognized as one of the "godfathers" of the Internet. Nevertheless, the information superhighway is an increasingly critical factor in military planning and international relations, a trend that attracts scant attention amid all the hoopla over the Net's commercial applications.
A strategic liability?
In earlier times, a nation's soft underbelly might be geographical or political - an indefensible harbor or an irredentist minority population within its borders.
Today, critical vulnerability lies in communications networks. Weaknesses in hardware and software expose huge swaths of our digital culture to malevolent forces, ranging from lone hackers to linked terrorist groups. Telephone systems might be knocked out, banking records erased, medical information scrambled.
There have always been terrorists and saboteurs, of course, but the Internet factor makes the situation even more worrisome. It's one thing for the bad guys to operate individually or in easily infiltrated physical networks. It's another for them to plan, organize, and execute their operations in cyberspace, where surveillance is problematic and jurisdictions unclear. Planners worry that the Internet is the perfect medium for terrorists bent on targeting the communications grid.
Tool for diplomacy
Prospects for the good guys look much better when we consider using the Internet for conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy. A recent conference by the United States Institute of Peace in Washington brought together thinkers who see the Internet as a tool for peace and democracy. While cautioning that "virtual diplomacy" has its limitations, most speakers were upbeat. They saw a future driven by information technology and characterized by less organizational hierarchy, more freely available data, and more realistic cooperation among nations.
On a practical level, information technology is contributing demonstrably to rebuilding and peacemaking in various parts of the globe. With its libraries and legal infrastructure still in shambles, Bosnia is using the Internet to help restore the rule of law. Legislation and regulations can be accessed electronically in remote parts of the country without fear of censorship or reliance on incomplete or outdated information. Quarrelsome neighbors in the Middle East are employing the Internet to help resolve critical water-use problems; technical data is exchanged in a private yet candid way that circumvents clogged or politically sensitive diplomatic channels. After terrorist attacks in Israel and elsewhere, schoolchildren across the region communicate with each other by e-mail to lessen tensions and blunt the temptation to demonize each other's culture.
These reassuring examples aside, there remain very real concerns that poorer nations are not sharing in the promise of cyberspace. Still, despite technical and cost barriers, developing nations are going on-line at a dramatic pace. In the first six months of 1995, there was a 53 percent increase in domain name registrations in Africa, compared with a 35 percent increase in the United States. Of course, poorer nations have a lot of catching up to do, but the groundwork is laid for a rapid spread of information technologies to societies that have not even industrialized fully.
The Internet is proving a boon to scientific and medical researchers in developing countries who normally would have to go abroad or miss important international conferences and publications. In the poor, landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso, two servers provide Internet access. Since 1992, traffic has doubled every year, and today some 30 organizations and several hundred people in Burkina Faso are in regular communication with research centers, universities, and international organizations around the world.
While we continue to be wowed by the Internet's efficiency in bringing all sorts of goods and services to our door, the truly revolutionary users might be these researchers in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. They are achieving for themselves what no politician or bureaucrat could do on their behalf: narrow and perhaps eliminate the information gap between the rich and the poor.
* Wilson Grabill, a former State Department official, writes on international affairs in Princeton, N.J.