Stop pretending cyberspace exists

Treating the Internet as a mythical country makes us dumber

Published February 12, 2013 8:15PM (EST)

Some ideas make you dumber the moment you learn of them. One of those ideas is the concept of “cyberspace.” The term was coined by William Gibson in his novel "Neuromancer" and defined as “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system …” As a metaphor that borrows imagery from geography, cyberspace is no different in kind from, say, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. But while nobody thinks that governments are invading Kennedy’s New Frontier, or commercializing Kennedy’s New Frontier, techno-anarchists on the right or left are constantly complaining that “cyberspace” is being “colonized” by government, business or both.

That’s what makes it necessary to state what ought to be obvious: There is no such place as cyberspace. It is not a parallel universe, coexisting with our world but in a different dimension. It is just a bad metaphor that has outlived its usefulness. Using the imagery of a fictitious country makes it harder to have rational arguments about government regulation or commercial exploitation of modern information and communications technologies.

Let’s start with government and cyberspace. Most Internet activity takes place in particular territories governed by states. The users of the equipment, as well as the infrastructure of servers, wireless towers, and so on, apart from satellites, are physical entities located in sovereign states. Maybe jihadists in the lawless “tribal” regions of Pakistan are effectively beyond the power of sovereign states. But individuals sitting at their PCs in, say, California are subject to the jurisdiction of the state of California and the United States of America. They may claim to be “citizens of cyberspace,” but that is a joke — the equivalent of presenting a customs officer at an international airport with a passport from the Kingdom of Oz.

So it makes no sense to say that California and the U.S. are extending their jurisdiction “into” cyberspace. Cyberspace is not the equivalent of land that has suddenly arisen off the coast and has yet to be claimed effectively by any existing nation-state. The countries of the world already have jurisdiction over all of the activity that goes on within their recognized international borders. How they exercise that authority can and should be debated. A liberal regime will pass legislative safeguards against government misuse of data and communications and will generally take a light hand, when it comes to regulation and taxation, in the interest of personal freedom and ease of commerce. But the fact that bad states may abuse the power to regulate telecommunications does not mean that benign states lack, or should lack, that power.

The idea that corporations are “invading” a mythical Oz-like kingdom called cyberspace is just as dopey. Unless you live in a country where a government monopoly builds, maintains and provides all connections to the Internet, or unless—in the alternative—you have personally built your own PC or phone or tablet and your own Internet infrastructure, at your own expense, you are dependent on a for-profit corporation for your access to the Internet. If you think that Internet service providers should be regulated in the public interest, good. So do I. But regulation would make them public utilities, like water treatment facilities or electric power plants. Nobody complains that electric utilities are “invading” the Virtual Realm of Electricity by generating and selling power, much less that governments that regulate power plants and power lines are “colonizing” that a virtual world made of electrons.

If you’re not convinced by now that the very notion of cyberspace is silly, try substituting “fax” or “telephone” or “telegraph” for “cyber” in words and sentences. The results will be comical. “Activists denounced government criminal surveillance policies for colonizing Fax Space.” “Should Telephone Space be commercialized?” Again, the point is not that telecommunications should not be structured and governed in the public interest, but rather that the debate about the public interest is not well served by the Land of Oz metaphor.

My guess is that cyber-hype is on the way out, for several reasons. For one thing, the novelty of PCs and wireless phones has worn off. They are no longer mystical portals to another dimension, but mere appliances.

At the same time, the borders between different communications modes — telephones, TVs and the Internet — are rapidly collapsing. No matter who wins the Battle of the Telcos — cable, telephone companies or something else entirely — modern IT-based communication will become a boring part of the 21st century landscape, like other utilities, including electricity and telephony and telegraphy, that seemed magical to earlier generations.

A sign that cyber-silliness may have reached its sell-by date is a new, tongue-in-cheek publication by Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Information Foundation, a Washington, D.C., research institute (with which I have no affiliation). Released 17 years to the day after former Grateful Dead drummer and Electronic Freedom Foundation board member John Perry Barlow published his utopian “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” “A Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace” restores common sense to a subject dominated too long by the gibberish of techno-utopians:

Libertarians of the Virtual World, you gray-bearded detractors of government and sovereignty, we too come from Cyberspace. On behalf of the future, we ask you of the past to leave us alone. Your declaration of independence rings false, and your stale principles are a threat to progress….

You claim to be advancing society on the Internet through a new social contract devoid of government influence, yet you have often dismissed or ignored the problems we face today. While many problems can be solved through self-governance, many others require government action. The governments of the world, not merely your virtual personas, have been at the helm of most initiatives to provide more universal access to the Internet, to foster digital literacy, and to limit digital crime…..

Like other intellectual-political fads of the late 20th century, including neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy, the idea of cyberspace as a parallel reality free from government regulation and commercial corruption was confused in its conception and doomed in practice. While we can all get smarter merely by dropping the term “cyberspace,” it’s not necessary to get rid of cyberspace itself. There never was any such thing.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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Cyber Warfare Government Internet Language Regulation