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Cyber in the Heart of Darkness

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Monday, February 18, 2013 at 5:28 PM

One of the most notable challenges in dealing with cybersecurity is the difficulty of adequately conveying the scope and size of cyberspace.  It’s easy to say that there are nearly 2.5 billion internet users in the world (35% of the world’s population) or to say that annual losses from cyber theft might range as high as $1 trillion.  But those numbers are hard to comprehend.  They don’t really convey what I consider to be the single most salient aspect of cyberspace that makes policy making so difficult — its distributed and dynamic nature.  The vastness of cyberspace is so great that sometimes I wonder how any hierarchical policy or law making apparatus can cope.  But sometimes the raw numbers just don’t have as much emotional or cognitive impact as one good photograph.

I just returned from three weeks of travel in Southeast Asia.  We started in Vietnam and then went to Cambodia.  Our last stop was Luang Prabang a small city in northeastern Laos on the Mekong River.  Back in the colonial era, Luang Prabang was as far out on the edge of the French empire as you could get.  Indeed, we were told that at the turn of the last century it actually took less time to travel by steamship from metropolitan France to Saigon than it did to take a small boat up the Mekong from Saigon to Luang Prabang — this even though, obviously, as the crow flies, the distance was much shorter.

Indeed, Luang Prabang is much like the Heart of Darkness.  When Conrad wrote of a trip up the Congo he might as well have been talking about the trip up the Mekong near Luang Prabang.  And this place is even further up the Mekong than where Captain Willard went to find his Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

In short, Luang Prabang is as far out on the edge of the world as you can get in practical terms.  And then we went for a boat ride north 40 kilometers on the Mekong — even further into the heart of the jungle.  Our goal was a famous Buddhist shrine near the town of Ban Pak Ou.  [Personally, they didn't do it for me -- but that's another story.]  The town was at the limits of civilization — squat toilets that drained into the river and subsistence farming were the norm for the 150 people who lived there.

But … and here’s the point of this short post … they had internet access!!   It was slow and probably didn’t work all the time.  But with my tablet I was able to see the Lawfare web page.  This photo is of the cell tower near town that brought internet access to the area.  It is impossible to say how surprised I was by this and how forcefully it struck me.

Next time I try to convey to someone the scope of the internet governance problem and how immensely distributed cyberspace is … I’ll just show them this photo.  It certainly will stick with me for a while.