The development of cyberspace is leading to a massive increase in the number and complexity of interactions among inhabitants, generating new sources of profit, power, social capital and conflict. Despite the apparent suspension of scarcity online and of the subsequent need for proprietary limits, cyberspace fuels cooperation and competition, defining our species as well as defying our sociality.
States are struggling to adapt to these evolutions by conceptualizing them in accordance with their preferred mental modes and instruments, setting borders, jurisdictions and spheres of influence. While cyberspace has not proved amenable so far, these efforts will impact cyber-governance, both in and among nations, in ways that will boost state powers and tighten the scope of freedoms online.
Information is a commodity, as information is power. By exchanging and extolling information, cyberspace becomes bazaar and agora (Jora 2017), a (market)place both for private commerce and cooperation, as it is for public coercion and corruption. Cyberspace immerses virtually three billion inhabitants worldwide, having transformed from a playground for technical experts to a marketplace and meeting hall for every kind of entity.
Citizens and consumers, governments and armies, NGOs and corporations live these cyber-realities, seemingly outside the traditional territory of geopolitics and ahead the predicted times of geo-economy, but still mappable and marketable along the unchanging lines of human nature and behaviors.
Reproducing the real world or completing it, cyberspace electronically preserves the human action with its social, cooperative expressions as well as with its state-made, coercive ones. Societal crises can display dramatic repercussions in the virtual realm, exposed by the very nature of the information society, while creating opportunities and threats to freedom and democracy (Kempf 2012).
These threats are not just the prospect of Orwell/Huxley/Zamiatin-previewed totalitarian regimes to use computers to monitor almost all feats of their citizens’ lives. A more significant danger lies in hidden control and command of beliefs and actions that the majority is manipulated into embracing through manufactured consensus fuelled by light-speed chat.
Information is seen as a scarce resource, despite apparent technical abundance, and poses problems of property rights both materially (as physical infrastructures of storage and circulation) and spiritually/intellectually (as devices to protect creative craftsmanship, innovative industriousness) and of regulatory jurisdiction and national security. It is an invitation to states, whether autocratic or not, to monitor its flows within/across borders. And such streams are diverted to circulate only inside specific groupings and for particular interests.
Privacy, access, trade privilege, and public interest have been debated endlessly in history and are relevant again.
The (nation-)states, the fundamental unities of geopolitics, are perceived at the sunset of their existence, although realities seem to reject such a hasty prognosis. They conscientiously cultivate the interest that has pushed them into being, preserving their existence both in the physical environment and in any other available space – the cyber realm. The geopolitics of cyberspace derives from the geopolitics of information (Smith 1980) and is crying now for a posture of its own, ad par with the old-time geopolitics, both scholarly and mundanely.
This paper tries to sketch some contours, overlappings and missing spots of the geopolitics of cyberspace as seen at the crossroads with the newer economy of global/digital interconnectedness.
The New Economy of Past Geopolitics
When we talk about the new economy (Browning and Spencer 2002), we are talking about a brand new world: one where people work with their brains more than with their brawn; one where information technology creates global markets and military competition; one where innovation is more important than mass production; a world where, through investments, new concepts are acquired and ways to develop the old ones, rather than new machines; one where rapid changes are the only constant.
The latest new economy involves several changes of scope and scale, breadth and depth that far exceed the avatars of the traditional factors or production relations. Along with it, the whole global polity and all national polities borrow that disrupting novelty.
Territory and power, the raison d’être of old-school geopolitics, are neither immune to novelty nor can ignore it. While geopolitics modifies its discourse from one era to the next, it stubbornly frames the world order and dismisses voices claiming its desuetude.
Space and territory – factors of production and casus belli, as well – are changing. Influenced by computerization, globalization and deterritorialization, global space challenges the traditional geometry of territory and moves towards multiple and decentralized forms challenging the sovereign power of states (Tuathail 1996). Far from being displaced by this new internet-, digital-, cyber- spatiality, geo-politicians and geo-strategists are rather concerned to re-map and manage it (side by side with economists).
Globalization, computerization and the emergence of global risk propagation have transformed the discourses and repertoires of geopolitical thinking, but a resignation of geopolitics is unlikely. Pretenders were launched under various names and disguises in postmodern times, but far from substituting classical geopolitics, they are rather complementary to it.
Among them, we mention: chronopolitics – the loss of material space consistency shifts governance to time management; geoeconomics – trade and investment considerations dislodge the obsolete military treatments; ecopolitics – the imminence of environmental menaces redesigns rivalries and alliances, geogovernment – a more integrated reality from the economic, cultural and political is cried for. Unable to be replaced and impossible to be neglected, spatiality keeps unaltered its significance in the universe of human actions.
The Internet (aka cyberspace) is the extra dimension in the new economy/polity/society. Admittedly, it is far more than the tool that the (fake news) media often overuses, or the simple vehicle that (dot.com) business abuses. It offers a new alternative for establishing communities, the habitat of online society, a spatial dimension of wealth similar to that of a newly discovered country, but still intersected by reminders of a past world.
The Internet network is proper and ready for a geopolitical study. For there are geopolitical objects, in the perspective proposed by the geographer Yves Lacoste (1993), from the Hérodote school, that of territorial rivalries subject to contradictory representations. Power struggles that remodel our civilization deeply do not take place only in the real territories of nations or peoples; they behave in the same way within the virtual world. Still, parallelisms look less intuitive.
Running in both real and virtual dimensions, offering universal support for expressing different representations, the Internet changed the geographic scale we were accustomed to looking at, confusing, implicitly, the geopolitical dimension.
The Internet is spatially physical: it is sufficient to review the planetary extension of these networks, the location of the servers and telecom operator cables, the nerve endings of personal computers. Such real architecture reveals the strengths and the domination of certain actors, public or private.
But the Internet does not only signify palpable, measurable territory. There are online worlds created by internet users. And these users are asymmetrical in interests and power; they enter combinations and conflicts alike, they rely on state or escape state institutions, so they are political, in their classical jurisdictions, and geopolitical, in anarchical global cyberspace.
Bits, Bytes, Boundaries, and Borders
Cyberspace interests the state for a simple reason: it is a populated territory. In the world of (nation-)states, space is sanctioned at the level of territories, framed by borders, at the level of points, zones or spheres of influence. There are several studies (Pingel 2001) trying to explore the suitability of traditional (geo)political concepts to fit into new cybernetic garments.
One may be guided along four axes:
a) reviewing the development and history of state boundaries theory;
b) determining a paradigm associated with the idea of a suitable boundary within which to situate cyberspace;
c) highlighting the interest of states to maintain and enhance their presence in cyberspace;
d) an inventory of state manifestations in the cyberspace.
The other side of the coin is to merely state that the anonymity and ubiquity that cyberspace allows, as well as its defiance of traditional physical and time-space dimensions, would have it become something akin to the high seas, international airspace or outer space – being considered as some global common or, legally, a res communis omnium and, therefore, immune to appropriation by one state or a group of states, as Antarctica or the Moon (Heintschel von Heinegg 2013).
States have persevered in imposing their authority, motivating the need to prosecute cybercrimes and terrorism. Even as they cooperate internationally for investigations, they do so using the established norms for cross-border cooperation, in respect of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is a complicated and controversial concept in political and legal theory, at least as complicated and controversial as the very concept of state, with which it is organically associated. Beyond the moral and ethical disputes it ignites, it is futile if the supreme authority (irrespective of its source) lacks a certain territorialized population.
A large number of paradigms associated with the idea of territoriality and, hence, borders have been articulated throughout the 20th century, facilitating comparisons and analogies with the situation of the cyberspace. Stephen Jones (1959) proposes some such ideas, out of which a few do seem relevant in the setup of cyber-borders (see Table 1).
Table 1: Border paradigms and border properties
Primitive or tribal model
The boundaries were non-linear, the territories being rather bounded by zones; blood ties prevailed over the territory as a political unity
The imperial model
There were either harsh, linear demarcations, separating civilization from barbarity (China), or flexible, fortified formula (the Roman Empire)
European Middle Age model
Distinct territories (by culture, language, etc.), allocated and inherited to/by dynastic families, not being connected whatsoever to each other
With the concentration of territories on a national basis, rather than a dynasty, the aim for continuous territorial areas as well as legitimacy prevailed
The organic model
State boundaries resemble the dermis of a plant or animal, which spreads or strains as dictates the needs of the state, being poorly permeable
The contractual model
States should agree on a line and respect it; it is improper to use military force, the true forms of an establishment being represented by treaties
Power policy model
The frontier is nothing less than a biological battlefield in people’s life; therefore borders being the contact lines of territorial power structures
Source: Synthesis after Jones (1959).
John R.V. Prescott (1965) articulates a concept which, due to historical similarity, was called the American West Paradigm and distinguishes between primary (de facto, rough and mostly done) setting of state-made, political borders and some secondary establishment of frontiers (de jure, more thorough, in progress).
There are, as well, some authors (Rosencrance 1996) predicting the very decline of the nation-state paradigm on the grounds that territory is no longer as important as it once was. This seems more attached to the idea that the resources used by one state do not necessarily mean resources refused to another.
In other words, since cyberspace cannot be filled, growing continuously, it defies the obsolete physically-scarce world (Virilio 1997). But borders stay in trend.
The Multi-Layered Cyber-Spatiality
It may not be possible for states to establish an effective division of their cyber-territory. Still, since cybernetic space grows, it might be a good starting point if someone wants to use a contractual paradigm to determine how the expansion of cyberspace can match website ownership.
In cyberspace, there are no rivers, no mountains, no trenches and no walls that can be digested as a mere frontier. It is fundamentally different from the real one, being composed of wires and hubs, its borders are hardly natural.
But if artificial borders are not per se more unstable than the natural ones, they are less intuitive. As all artificial boundaries are either subjective or arbitrary, it is easier for two parties not to understand the respective boundary position. Here, the case of cyberspace is paramount.
The discussions on mapping the cyberspace and the selection of the most comprehensive paradigm for delineating borders and thus power and authority over a particular area are legitimate concerns. The spatial character of the network can be accepted as derived from the idea of an environment where there are degrees of movement: information and value move and so do power and influence.
By consequence, cyberspace looks like a legitimate geopolitical (as well as a geo-economic) space, for its design of opposing interests and colliding influences, imply territorial allocation of resources.
It, therefore, becomes a kind of geopolitical territory, superimposed onto a sum of private spaces, mapped rather through volatile/virtualized connections rather than concrete/rock-solid coordinates.
In an article projecting geopolitics over cyberspace, Frédérick Douzet (2014) identifies four layers for such cyber-spatiality: physical objects, logical infrastructure, soft applications, and interactions.
At every level of this multi-layered space are rivalries of power between actors over technical issues, but whose stakes are, in a meaningful measure, geopolitical (see Table 2).
Figure 2: Layers of contemporary cyber-geosphere
Submarine and terrestrial cables, satellites and radio relays, computers and other terminals – that is a set of equipment ultimately installed on a territory, subjected to the constraints of the physical and political geography, that can be built, modified or destroyed, connected or disconnected from the network
Services that make it possible to transmit information across the web and, thus, to make it travel divided into small data packets, from sender to recipient; it is based on a common language (the Internet Protocol TCP / IP); it includes (also geo-localizable) services of routing, naming and addressing
User-friendly computer programs that allow anyone to use the Internet without knowing anything about computer programming (Web, e-mail, social networks, search engines, etc.); some apps (by Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) cunningly exploit blindly entrusted private info, to the gain of third parties
Users, discussions and exchanges in real time around the world; it is geopolitically relevant when it comes time to determine the most friendly countries on social networks, observing the cultural penetrations or the location of social rebellions or disinformation campaigns against governments (or other entities)
Source: Synthesis after Douzet (2014).
Various analysts observe that in spite of the illusive easement with respect to commercial espionage, malicious and exploitive cyber practices remain an extensive and exhausting feature of twenty-first century international relations.
These criminal cyber operations can be grouped in three broad categories, intersecting all the above-mentioned layers of the cyberspace:
1) espionage and information leaks,
2) disrupting connections and denying access, and
3) software and hardware destruction (Watts and Richard 2018).
These cross-cyberspace-fabric and cross-national-jurisdiction practices growingly defy the old-fashion understandings of the limits on state activity confined to territorial sovereignty during times of nominal peace. States are called to reframe sovereignty to operate adequate to cyberspace texture, as they did in other episodes in the history of international relations.
Absent a lex specialis regarding cyber sovereignty, the precedent of securing traditional territorial integrity offers a principled (yet too passé) starting point.
Cyber-Geopolitics and Cyber-Warfare
Cyberspace evolved from Gibson’s (1984) fantasy to a territory to conquer, control, monitor, and reclaim, on which everyone must respect borders, sovereignty, laws, while deviated cyber-conduct equates to an assault on the national interest/security.
The Westphalianization of the cyberspace, in terms of sovereignty and jurisdiction, points towards the claim and crave of states to exercise full and exclusive control and command over their cyber-territories (Schmitt and Vihul 2017). With certain instruments, this is also possible, if not particularly effective, in cyberspace.
Nota bene, when it comes to planting state flags (Dossé 2010) in cyberspace, two at odds representations regarding this unusual, hybrid, multi-layered and multi-fabric territory severely enter into a collision course: the first one is that of individual freedom, while the second one calls for the sovereign state to follow-up on its citizens’ rights and duties, to serve and protect them in the digital space as it does in the analogic one, with the same obscure price paid as fiscal and regulatory control in exchange for (true or false) public goods (Iacob 2016).
Among the former, by 1996, even a declaration of independence of cyberspace had been issued, asserting the self-sovereignty of cyberspace (citizens). In this civilization of the mind – it was considered by the liberalists –, the laws of the governments, emerging from the conventional physical world, do not and shall not be made to apply.
Notably, such internet freedom philosophy was a revamped episode of the 1960’s countercultural movement, preaching for openness, self-management and freedom of exchange and expression.
But cyberspace, supposedly lost in the sci-fi novel universe, reappears in the 2000s in the realpolitik of state institutions and officials (Deibert 2015). In 2007, Estonia, one of the most digitalized countries in the world, was under a ferocious cyber-attack – some critical infrastructures for both public administration and private economy were paralyzed –; this siege was instrumented not by tanks or airplanes, but by networks of thousands of zombie (malware infected, remotely controlled) computers; a year later, it was Georgia’s turn to be hit.
Realism informs us that the force of sovereignty is ultimately related to the capacity to defend it in plain battlefield long before doing it in law courtroom.
The Great Firewall of China (as monumental as its stone ancestor) is an utterly fortified border (access and egress being not only for people and goods, but also for information) whose acceptance grounded the idea of the exclusivity of the territory behind the wall, where China may influence the content and communications of its people. That it can be subverted with ease and people routinely do so may harm the Chinese claim to cyber sovereignty, but not wholly, as China retains, through the physical world, the ability to punish violations of its regulations and exert control over the physical infrastructures to compel obedience, should it purpose to do so.
An indirect claim of inherent territoriality, not yet formally defined and delineated, comes from the ability of countries to work together to establish governance for cyberspace, eliding the usual need first to establish who controls what.
The Obama Administration added to this view of continuity between territoriality and cyber-spatiality saying that the development of norms for state conduct in cyberspace neither require a rewriting of customary international law, nor render the international norms, currently in place, outmoded, explicitly marking the fact that longstanding rules guiding (peace/war) state behaviors cover cyberspace too (Brown and Poellet 2012).
Geopolitical confrontations in cyberspace would either take the form of lawfare, the use of laws, institutions and norms to pursue interests outside the scope of the instruments used, or of a mutually assured destruction warfare type of confrontation, even of nuclear magnitude, which rewards deterrence and restraint.
It is still worth mentioning that cyberweapons feature as an equalizer of power between states and also between states and non-state actors. The proliferation of cyberweapons may result in significant disruptive potential, as there are no barriers of costs to their replication and usage, while certain actors do not respond well to deterrence.
Power in cyberspace will belong to the country which can rally important stakeholders to its side. The most important stakeholders are those controlling the physical infrastructure or the virtual infrastructure of cyberspace, such as a search engine which is the gateway to the Internet for most people, or a social network. Others are international institutions and influential working groups.
Power comes with the network of reliable proxies ensuring plausible deniability for the use of cyberweapons in surgical strikes against rivals’ infrastructure, as power comes from the capacity to withstand severe cyber-conflicts, thereby gaining both prestige and followers.
Invoking the need to secure sovereignty and having as sovereign concern security, states are fighting a symbolic battle for control over identifiable swathes of cyberspace. They are increasingly defining their rule by extending their physical space of authority into the cyber one, where people, systems and, growingly, everyday items find a virtual correspondent, and by building on the existing set-ups for sovereignties and inter-state relations: to be online as it is in the physical world!
The states have an abiding interest in this and, therefore, are also motivated to legitimize their policies and actions by promoting an ideology or worldview which supports their intentions, predicated as protection against solitaire criminals and, of course, rogue states.
The conjoint themes of cyber-security and cyber-liberty represent the renewal of the ages-old conundrum: might the surrender of some freedom for more security leave us at the end of the day in possession of neither?
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