SAMIR SARAN | Sep 12, 2013, 12.00 AM IST
It is a global commons that cannot be controlled by any government or corporation.
History today stands on the cusp of a technological pivot much like it did 160 years ago. When US commodore Matthew Perrysailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, he found a Japan so fossilised in time by its technophobic bureaucracy and protectionist businesses that the very sight of his steam-belching ships was enough to make the nation capitulate.
This same moment is playing out today in the realm of cyberspace where the surge of collective technological creativity of the masses has deeply dented the power of governments and institutions that were once the drivers of innovation.
Consequently one finds a steady stream of Goebbelsian propaganda to create a phantom enemy intended to terrorise a population into giving up its rights and privileges. The government and big private players are the last and only line of defence between civilisation and a complete descent into anarchy — or so the argument goes. Not true. Anarchy and technology go hand in hand; technology and innovation owe their existence to anarchy.
Anarchy and technology must continue to contest and cooperate to shape cyberspace. This is a process as old as the universe and evolution itself, where each new development brings both danger and opportunity. This is humanity’s technological evolution. There must be no space for sovereign or business interests to control, securitise or regulate this evolving virtual space. This is, after all, the only genuinely free market place ever since the advent of capitalism, a market offering equal opportunities, stakes and roles for everyone.
Counterposing national security and cyberspace or making international cooperation dependent on cybersecurity is both pompous and misplaced. Cyberspace is a free-wheeling mind-space at the cutting edge of innovation precisely because of the absence of sovereignty and artificial barriers. Declaring sovereignty here is as absurd as extending one’s jurisdiction deep into the minds of others.
For example, Libya in 2010 decided to seize .Ly URL shorteners, while the US has recently seized URLs of companies operating abroad because their servers were in the US and American law was at odds with the laws of those countries. This is evidently not about security. It’s about control. It’s about testing the waters to see how far one can go and how far people will cower down. Cyberspace is therefore on the frontline of the battle between freedom and control in the 21st century.
Governments though aren’t the only ones throwing a fuss. Some of the strongest proponents of greater regulation and control over the cybersphere are in the private sector. On the one hand they want to use the seamless fluidity, innovation, reach and speed of this space — the ultimate capitalist ideal — to their advantage. On the other, like the very worst kind of communists, they want to lay down the rules for how this space works, but expect everyone to pick up the tab for their security.
If these companies wish to use cyberspace, they need to be willing to accept the attendant risks and costs, just like they are for road or sea transit. Transfer loss and copyright theft are all part of this. To claim that such losses then entitle one to regulate these cyber pathways is about as nakedly imperialistic an argument as the great European powers used to justify their land-grabs in response to any law and order situation in the 19th century. It is critical that the information age does not turn into an age of ‘digital imperialism’.
So, if governments and corporates don’t decide the rules, who does? The reality is that no corporate house or government has the organisational nimbleness to lay the rules here — technology’s moving too fast for that. Technology is both the problem and the solution. Just as every virus results in an antivirus and for every hack there emerges an anti-hack, technology must compete with technology and creativity must be matched by counter-creativity. Ultimately the needs of order cannot and must not be allowed to stifle creativity. Far from it, creativity must decide order.
Some forms of data do need protection though, such as security operations, banking details etc. Wonderful, so the owners and collators of such information should build their own secure parallel systems unconnected to the global commons that they are free to police, patrol and regulate as they see fit. If they want security they need to build their own infrastructure with its own fences. The commons cannot be fenced off, and neither can the property of others.
Cyberspace, however, fits into no single category — it is an intensely personal extension of one’s deepest thoughts and secrets. An extension of the mind, this makes it both private property as well as an outlet of expression, while at the same time being a global common open to everyone. Cede but a little on the right to property in this space and one loses the right to one’s freedom of expression. This debate is also the frontline between personal liberty and authoritarianism.
Every time the interests of the state and the freedom of the individual collide, the balance of the narrative in the cyber-world must lie with the individual. That is what is truly at stake here; the personal liberty of six billion people.
The writer is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation.