October 21, 2008 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
Time was when the Internet couldn't do without America. After all America invented it and developed it to the extent that for over three decades, no matter where Internet data originated or headed, it had to pass through the fat pipes and fast switches there. Yet as the use of Internet explodes elsewhere in the world, America is not only fast losing its central status but is also seen as a country that may be risky for routing Internet data.
In late August the NYT carried a report that raised quite a bit of furor in the USA. It said that much to the dismay of many - and of the American intelligence community in particular -- Internet data is increasingly bypassing the United States, taking a more direct route. And although the Internet is built that way -- to be universal and not subject to a central point of control, the fact that Internet traffic is flowing around US is not good news for America. Not only does it make it "impossible for the United States to maintain its hegemony", but it also has long term "military and intelligence consequences."
The report has hit a sensitive spot. Quite a few experts that this correspondent spoke to -including a few who have been quoted in the report -- found it difficult to accept that Internet data flow is slackening in the US and even if data is bypassing the country, so what? "The idea of U.S. hegemony over data flow is silly," wrote one of the experts quoted in that report in her blog.
Yet take a look at some of the recent research reports and some other tell-tale signs and it becomes evident that US is losing its dominance on the global Internet data flow. Moreover, a few countries -- particularly upstart ones like China, South Korea and even India -- are already giving US a run for its money in terms of investing heavily in next-generation Internet technology, and even cutting US out of the routing loop.
"In 1996, two-thirds of the world's online population was in the US but the country now accounts for less than 21% of the worldwide Internet population," said Magid Abraham, Co-founder and CEO of comScore, Inc., that calls itself a global Internet information provider of real-time measurement of Internet use. He added that "though the Top 10 Global properties are still all based in the United States, they source the majority of their audience from outside the US."
According to another report released in May by Park Associates, with Internet penetration at a comfortable 71%, although almost four of five US households have access to the Internet today, there is still a fairly high percentage - about 20 million, or 18% of all households- of US consumers who does not have access to the Internet and very few of them plan on using the Internet in the foreseeable future.
Admittedly, like it or not, the fact is that the global Internet traffic is increasingly bypassing the US. "If you go back to the mid-1990s, which was the beginning of the commercialization of the Internet, very few places outside the USA had Internet exchanges with long distance capacity," says Steve Gibbar, an Internet infrastructure consultant who runs his own consulting firm Steve Gibbard Consulting. "And most countries when they got their initial Internet connections, were buying connectivity to somewhere that is much better connected and in the beginning that was the US. But pretty quickly after the Internet became commercialized in the mid-90s we started seeing that sending traffic through this route wasn't very efficient. So that's how [Internet exchanges in] other places like London. Amsterdam, Tokyo, Seoul got developed and Internet traffic started flowing directly instead of going through the US."