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Web borders: Imposing Sovereignty over cyberspace

Welcome to chembur.comLONG LONG ago in the history of the Internet- way back in February 1996- John Perry Barlow, an Intenet activist, published a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It was a well-meaning stunt that captured the spirit of the time, when great hopes were pinned on the emerging medium as a force that would encourage freedom and democracy. Governments of the industrial world, Mr Barlow declared, on behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.

Those were the days. At the time,it was widely believed that the Internet would help undermine authoritarian regimes, reduce governments’ abilities to levy taxes, and circumvent all kinds of local regulation. The Internet was a parellel universe of pure data, an exciting new frontier where a lawless freedom prevailed. But it now seems that this was simply a glorious illusion. For it turns out that governments do in fact, have a great deal of sovereignty over cyberspace. The Internet is often perceived as being everywhere yet nowhere, as free-floating as a cloud- but in fact it is subject to geography after all, and therefore to law.

The idea that the Internet was impossible to regulate dates back to when its architecture was far simpler than now. All sorts of new technologies have since been bolted on to the network, to speed up the delivery of content, protect networks from intruders, or target advertising depending on a user’s country or city of origin. All of these technologies have mundance commercial uses. But in some cases they have also provided governments with ways to start bringing the Internet under the rule of locals laws.

The same firewall and filtering technology that is used to protect corporate networks from intrusion is also, for example, used to isolate Internet users in China from the rest of the network. A recent report on the Internet’s impact in China by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a private thinktank based in Washington, DC, found that the government has been able to limit political discourse online. Chinese citizens are encouraged to get on the Internet, but access to overseas sites is strictly controlled, and what users post online is closely monitored. The banned Falun Gong movement has had its website shut down altogether. Similarly, Singapore and Saudi Arabia filter and censor Internet content, and South Korea has banned access to gambling websites. In Iran, it is illegal for children to use the Internet, and access to immoral or anti-Iranian material. In these countries, local standards apply, even on the Internet.

To American cyber-libertarians, who had hoped that the Internet would spread their free-speech gospel around the world, this is horrifying. Yahoo! is appealing against the French decision, because it sets a precedent that would require websites to filter their content to avoid breaking country-specific laws. It would also have a chilling effect on free speech, since a page posted online in one country might break the laws of another. Enforcing a judgment against the original publisher might not be possible, but EU countries have already agreed to enforce each other’s laws under the Brussels Convention, and there are moves afoot to extend this scheme to other countries too, at least in the areas of civil and commercial law, under the auspices of the Hague Convention.

It is true that filtering and geolocation are not watertight, and can be circumvented by skilled users. Filters and firewalls can be defeated by dialing out to an overseas Internet access-provider; geolocation can be fooled by accessing sites via another computer in another country. E-mail can be encrypted. But while dedicated dissidents will be prepared to go to all this trouble, many Internet users are unable to change their browsers’ home pages, let alone resort to these sorts of measures. So it seems unlikely that the libertarian ethos of the Internet will trickle very far down in countries with authoritarian regimes.

In some ways this is a shame, in others not. It is certainly a pity that the Internet has not turned out to be quite the force for freedom that it once promised to be. But in many ways, the imposition of local rules may be better than the alternatives; no regulation at all, or a single set of rules for the whole world. A complete lack of regulation gives a free hand to cheats and criminals, and expecting countries with different cultural values to agree upon even a set of lowest-common-denominator rules is unrealistic. In some areas, maybe, such as extradition and consumer protection, some countries or groups of countries may be able to agree on common rules. But more controversial matters such as free speech, pornography and gambling are best regulated locally, even if that means some countries imposing laws that cyber-libertarians object to.

Figuring out whose laws apply will not always be easy, and thrashing all of this out will take years. But it will be reassuring for consumers and businesses alike to know that online transactions are governed and protected by laws. The likely outcome is that, like shipping and aviation, the Internet will be subject to a patchwork of overlapping regulations with local laws that respect local sensibilities, supplemented by higher-level rules governing cross border transactions and international standards. In that respect, the rules governing the Internet will end up like those governing the physical world. That was only to be expected. Though it is inspiring to think of the Internet as a placeless datasphere, the Internet is part of the real world. Like all frontiers, it was wild for a while, but policeman always show up eventually.

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