By Rasmus Eriksson
When John Perry Barlow published his declaration of the independence of cyberspace in 1996, he may have been slightly naive in his aspirations for the internet’s global neutrality and border-free exchange. He, alongside many others, hoped to see it grow beyond the geopolitical boundaries we have drawn for ourselves in the physical world, a vision of an internet that is not subject to the interference of sovereignty and state governance. Most, however, would agree that ‘the net’ has failed to live up to this initial ambition in the face of increased pressure from nation states. From China’s widespread internet censorship to the differing legal treatments of privacy between countries, legal and cultural borders inevitably become a prominent feature of the internet. On the other hand, recent developments in technology suggest that the internet could still challenge the notion of a bordered cyberspace experience, questioning the status quo of our geographic relationship with the worldwide web.
In the 1990s the internet was largely dominated by websites in English which seemed to promise that this new non-territory would be united and globalised behind a single language. But then VKontakte and Tuenti respectively became Russia and Spain’s ‘answers to Facebook’ in the late 2000s, and Sweden would replace Ebay for its own versions: Tradera or Blocket. Scholars Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith point to changes like these in order to emphasise how the internet naturally perpetuates geographical borders; to them language is “the most immediate and important difference reflected by borders.” What is lacking in their 2006 assessment of the cultural boundaries present on the web, is the update we have seen with services like Google page translate, the ImTranslator browser extension, or even websites dedicating their own resources towards providing multi-language interfaces and texts. These additions make previously inaccessible websites and content now available to most spoken languages. For those who worry about the reach of Silicon Valley based monopolies this may not be good news, but it certainly serves to mould the internet into something more resilient to cross-border obstructions. Ultimately it hints at the reemerging possibility of a world less predefined by the lines on our maps.
On the other hand, circumnavigating the legal and commercial spaces that governments have sought to protect on the internet has resulted in more complicated developments. Patent rights and licenses to ideas and products have long made international trade and globalisation a tricky legal domain for countries trying to protect creators within their own borders. This is further strained when the potential access to any of these products becomes virtually limitless on the internet. Countries and websites resort to ‘geolocation’ and ‘geoblocking’ to restrict what content a user is capable of viewing. China’s massive firewall that blocks countless websites for its inhabitants may come to mind, but intellectual property is also consistently blocked in European countries due to the copyright laws embedded in our legal jurisdictions. Virtual private networks (VPNs) offer a way around this, however. The rerouting of your internet connection through VPNs is legal almost everywhere and ensures the privacy and anonymity that help to virtually dissolve the intellectual property borders enforced by governments and companies. By masking a user’s IP address as one belonging to a different country, VPNs become a legal bypass, allowing people to ignore borders that have been built into place. It is not the case that the majority of internet users actually use VPNs and in the case that they do, their application is usually geared towards obtaining a better selection of Netflix films. As such, most people remain susceptible to ‘geo-IDing’ and many would even welcome geolocation services that help tailor advertisements towards local businesses or make it simpler to find one’s location on an online map service. Currently, this technology exists more as an option than as the norm. Despite their legal status, we may think to compare VPNs to fake passports in the physical world. That is to say, VPNs allow us to bypass the border authority of states without ridding us of the borders themselves. This refutes the claim that the internet is entirely compartmentalized, and challenges the ability of governments to control the spread of content.
Finally, the question of what role cryptocurrencies play in the enforcement of border security and internet governance is an increasingly important issue worthy of consideration. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are essentially peer to peer currencies, digital cash that functions as a decentralised medium of exchange for products or services. So whilst the US government can easily monitor a person’s credit/debit card or bank transactions in dollars, cryptocurrencies are often pseudo anonymous so transactions are not tied to the identity of users. Unlike geoblocking and VPNs, alternative digital currencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and Monero provide a clear example of how the internet affects our tangible borders. The majority of cryptocurrency usage may be for legitimate transactions (e.g. Microsoft added Bitcoin as a payment option in 2014), but some usage has also been linked to the purchasing and smuggling of drugs behind the veil of anonymity. Ethereum and Monero are far harder for governments to track than Bitcoin and so they pose problems for any state that is wishing to preserve its border law integrity and trying to prevent drug and/or human trafficking. Responding to this and policing financial exchanges on the internet has had, and will likely continue to have, border implications on the cyber world.
Whilst tools like translator plug-ins may not disrupt traditional legal notions of borders and security, the possibility remains of tighter forthcoming regulations on cryptocurrencies and VPN services. Their contributions to internet freedom and anonymity are to be valued in a time where the weight of surveillance and regulation is felt at large, but now is a time to reflect on what borders may also have to offer us as well as to remain vigilant. As participants of the digital arena for a historic tug of war between freedom and security, protectionism and free markets, space and borders, we all stand to be affected.
Rasmus Eriksson is a student of politics and international relations who tries to balance his obsessive tendency of delving into tedious geopolitical questions with a healthy dose of the arts in various forms. He unironically refers to Europe as his home and thoroughly enjoys watching political thrillers in his pastime.
Image: Melinda Nilsson