Few countries can claim as distinctive a legacy as Switzerland’s long adherence to a doctrine of absolute neutrality. Since the fall of Napoleon, the Swiss have managed to stay out of the international conflicts, including World Wars I and II and, to a certain extent, the Cold War, by agreeing to treat all sides equally. As a result, the landlocked nation developed strict privacy laws, perfect for discreet international banking and, now some are saying, running the internet.
“Long known for its neutral status among nations, Switzerland has a golden opportunity to put the same concept to work in virtual space,” Bryan Ford, a professor at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) who “specializes in decentralized systems, internet security and anonymity” told the attendees of the EPFL’s cybersecurity conference today.
“Switzerland can and should develop a neutral virtual space,” he said.
Russia, the United States, and China have converted the broader internet into an all-consuming battleground of Cold War proportions, Ford argues, and there is no place for people who want to stay out of the whole mess to connect.
“Efforts by some countries, including the USA, to have backdoors installed in programs automatically raises suspicions among other nations,” said Ford.
There certainly is a market for secure communications. Viber and WhatsApp proved that when they eschewed the potential to develop A.I. messaging apps like Google’s Allo to implement a rigid end-to-end encryption privacy system.
Even as companies like Google begin to offer the illusion of international, or Cloud-based, services, a company based in the United States still is supposed to comply with government orders, and clearly that’s posed a problem for some in recent years.
“Encrypted data can be exchanged through a cloud, but for that you have to trust the service provider in Silicon Valley. Switzerland, on the other hand, has built a track record in creating common ground for exchange and negotiation, and could use this to play a leading role in this field,” said Ford.
It’s the same theory that underlies centuries of battleground neutrality, but it’s not clear if modern technology will be able to accomplish in cyberspace what the towering Swiss Alps have done in the meatspace. Ford’s idea is to build on the advances of the blockchain technology developed in the financial world and pioneered by virtual currencies like Bitcoin to develop an entirely secure network. Ethereum, the new cryptocurrency that can also be used to develop secure apps and websites, may be the closest example to what Ford has in mind.
“Just like with the virtual currency Bitcoin, all transactions are public and verifiable by all participants [using blockchains],” said Ford.
The only problem with this plan is that Swiss banking grew rich on its opacity, not its transparency. Bitcoin and other blockchain technologies are radical because they ditched governments altogether, and so it isn’t clear how a nation like Switzerland can strengthen the technology. Since blockchains run across thousands of computers all across the world, they aren’t reliant on one nation to host its servers. It’s certainly a grey area of modern law though, so having a country with a friendly track record toward neutrality may go a long way.
We still have no word yet on where Switzerland will fall in the great meme war.