The internet is now subject to “universal spying” and not using encryption is like “writing all your private communications on postcards”, one of the internet’s pioneers has warned.

“In the early days, the goal was just to make it work. Nobody was thinking of how to make it secure,” said Louis Pouzin, a French computer communications expert recognised as one of the five ‘fathers of the internet’.

“Using encryption is a way of making it more costly and difficult to be spied on, but there’s no guarantee that our system is totally protected from spying. The most secure system can at some point be broken.”

Mr Pouzin, famed for developing an innovative data network in the early 1970s that laid the groundwork for the internet of today, was in Malta for a conference organised by the Diplo Foundation on internet governance.

Speaking yesterday, he expressed his concern that the influence of companies like Google and Facebook – mostly based in the US – was destroying the internet’s early ideals of openness and transparency.

“The commercialisation of the internet was a deliberate government policy; by relying on their giant commercial firms, the US ensured they could control the whole world,” he said.

“We have to find ways to control the development. We can no longer be pushed around by a few US companies.”

Mr Pouzin warned that spying technology would only increase in the years to come, and that a system of “walls” or “filters” was needed to challenge an American-led hegemony.

By relying on their giant commercial firms, the US ensured they could control the whole world

“Global internet is based on an obsolete system of global power by one country. One approach is to subdivide the internet into more manageable pieces,” he said, pointing to the possibility of national sovereignty over different corners of the internet.

Mr Pouzin added that the current “monopoly” of domain names, whereby only one entity is allowed to make use of a given domain, is a further “means of control” based on an outdated notion of scarcity.

Moreover, since domain names feature only Western scripts, he said, some two-thirds of the world’s population is excluded.

“The way to protect a unique name is a trademark, not the internet,” he said.

Also speaking at the conference, Joe Cannataci, head of the Department of Information Policy and Governance at the University of Malta, said innovative legislative instruments could be needed to tackle new realities like cyberwar.

“At the moment we have a number of ‘cyber-skirmishes’. In the same space as people using Google and Facebook, we have people stealing secrets and testing power stations to see if they can be brought down.”

Meanwhile, Alex Sceberras Trigona, a special envoy to the World Trade Organisation, spoke of the need to consider the internet as the “common heritage of mankind”, drawing comparisons to the Antarctic and the seas beyond national jurisdictions.

“The internet is a new territory that has been created. Is it one where a single sovereign state is going to plant its flag or are there competing flags?”

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