La pluralité des “frontières” de l’Internet

Communication introductive du séminaire « Borders and the Internet », 9 novembre 2012, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD)/Mortara Center for International Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Ce séminaire, que j’ai conçu, introduit et animé, doit beaucoup à la journée d’études “Internet et frontières” organisée par Valérie Schafer et Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay à l’Institut des Sciences de la Communication du CNRS le 20 juin 2011.

The Plurality of Internet Borders

Francesca Musiani (Yahoo ! Fellow in Residence, ISD)

The conception of communication tools and media as instruments able to « overcome boundaries » has driven communicative efforts for centuries – well before the inception of the Internet. The promises (and, some may argue, the successes) of digital networked technologies have renewed this endeavor, by suggesting the possibility of global social networks and real-time, transnational access to information. It should not be neglected, however, that social tensions and boundaries pervade the “virtual” communications of today, that are still shaped by a number of cultural, national and structural borders. These points of tension, collision, constraint should not necessarily be understood in a negative way, but may be considered as an occasion to consider digital contents and infrastructures in terms of continuity, shifts, displacements – perhaps a more constructive approach, notwithstanding the radical novelty brought by the Internet in several areas of our life, than the labeling of Internet-related phenomena as revolutions and counter-revolutions, as bright and dark sides.

The notion of border is in itself plural and open – and in relation to the “network of networks”, it can be understood in many ways. Borders in the most classical sense, that of State frontiers and the extent of their political influence, can be discussed vis-à-vis the Internet just as they have been discussed for other transnational resources that can be defined as commons – like oceans and space. They are venues for tension and negotiation: they are the places where contradictory stances, digital divides, desires for a less unilateral governance of the Internet, come into play.

Matters of Internet and jurisdiction have been one of the core governance issues to be discussed since the Internet has become a global, public “facility”. The question of jurisdiction and the Internet connects to the broader Internet governance question concerning the possibility – and if yes, to what extent – to relate the Internet to traditional legal and political concepts. (Almost) all Internet content can be accessed from (almost) everywhere, which puts all users of the Net in the position of being subject to the jurisdiction of every State. Every time that new content is uploaded on the World Wide Web, it is extremely problematic to predict whether it will violate a national law somewhere else than the country where the upload physically took place. What domestic law should be applied in particular events, and which one should be enforced? Inversely, is it possible to predict how the enforcement of a specific law in a national context will affect the rights of other users elsewhere?

Geopolitical borders raise the question of the relationship of the Internet – more generally, of information/communication infrastructures – to law, to national political strategies, to the risks of “balkanization” of the Internet, i.e., the risk of turning the network of networks into a set of “islands” instead of a true interconnected, interoperable network. Or then again, they raise questions about the specificity and characteristics of « cyberconflicts », inviting to explore the realities of cyberwar and cyberattacks. And cybersecurity: beyond its definition in a political and military sense, what new challenges are raised by Internet technology that erases some borders and creates new ones, such as traceability, fragmentation, encryption?

These borders, those related to geopolitical issues, are the subject that first comes to our minds when we consider how the concept of borders may relate to the Internet – if only because we are at a workshop promoted by an institute for the study of diplomacy, and a centre for international studies. Indeed, more than a colleague that works in diplomacy and with whom I’ve talked since the announcement of this workshop assumed that this was going to be our main subject today. Yet, our speakers and myself would like to undertake a slightly different exercise with you – and draw your attention to other types of Internet borders, with the hope that in doing so, we can foster a stimulating discussion on how they interact, cross, influence one another – and our very experience(s) of the Internet.

The first type of Internet borders that I wish to draw your attention to are interfaces, not only in a technical sense, between real and virtual, between people and machines. They are places of exchange that making « otherness » strongly visible at the same time as they bring, remotely, people closer. Since the very beginnings of informatics and of the Internet, at a time when its users were also its designers, to the so-called era of the “Web 2.0”, the history of interfaces and human-computer interaction shows the extent to which the use of the Internet by the public is largely shaped, in a normative sense, by the interfaces that are proposed to them by IT “giants” – and it shows that opening the doors for interactivity does not necessarily lead to meaningful interaction.

Internet borders are the barriers to interoperability and direct, peer-to-peer connections. Even if the concept of decentralization is embedded to some extent at the very core of the Internet, today’s “network of networks” integrates this principle only partially. The dominant organizational model for Internet-based services involves large clusters of servers controlled by the « giants » of the IT sector. The search for alternatives is in progress, aiming at different ways to achieve effectiveness and sustainability. In this quest, a number of developers look back to the evergreen qualities of a relatively old technology, peer-to-peer (P2P), that leverages the socio-technical resources of the network’s periphery, in a way that is, in fact, closer to the pre-commercial Internet. Internet borders are the technical and juridical barriers that prevent the “edges” of the network – users’ computers – to organize autonomously in decentralized networks, and totally or partially overcome the necessity of mandatory, centralized coordinating entities.

The Internet opens gates, facilitates spaces of transfer and exchange, provides or enhances mediation tools for sharing and co-construction of knowledge. Networked information technologies reconfigure patterns of interaction with mass culture, and have the potential to both empower users and extend the reach and scope of culture industries. However, the Internet it is also the bearer of cultural borders. In particular, the past few decades – the same decades that have witnessed the Internet’s steadfast development – have witnessed a significant expansion of control over copyrighted content. Copyright is now associated with an unprecedented variety of human-generated content – extending from more « classical » forms of art such as novels, sculptures, paintings to citizen journalism outputs or digital artwork. Recent term extensions have opened the doors for copyright to last longer than ever before. The rights conferred by copyright have become broader, while the exceptions and limitations to copyright that previously existed within national laws have been progressively narrowed. Techno-juridical systems destined to restrain by law what the technology enables and promotes by design are mushrooming all around the world – from France’s infamous Hadopi to the aborted SOPA and PIPA law projects in the United States.

Finally, Internet borders are the boundaries of online identity, of privacy of digital data, of the acceptability of online behavior, of rights and copyright(s). As Georgetown Law professor Julie Cohen argues in her recent book, Configuring the Networked Self, « the everyday behaviors of ordinary people require spaces where they can be enacted, tools with which they can be pursued, and meaningful legal guarantees in which they can claim shelter. This requires more careful attention to the semantic structure of the networked information environment. » The amount of information that is being collected today, about individuals and groups, has grown exponentially and is increasingly pervasive, ranging from online purchases’ history to browsing habits, from intellectual preferences to health conditions. This pool of personal information lasts longer and travels farther than ever before; it is « stored in digital databases, exchanged in markets, and “mined” by both government and private actors for insights into individual and group behavior ». The increase in data-processing activity goes hand-in hand with a number of evolutions in how we are identified as people, consumers and citizens – with the diffusion of authentication regimes linked to online identity in order to control access to spaces and resources, both real and digital. The aggregation of these data creates comprehensive and persistent records of individual activity. Governments are involved in many of these activities ; however, the vast majority of data-mining, authentication, and monitoring initiatives do not originate with them, but with the private sector’s initiatives so as to learn more about current and prospective customers, control access to ressources both virtual and real, and manage network traffic. Moreover, the increasingly widespread diffusion of cameras, networked personal devices, and social-networking platforms means that individuals and social groups themselves actively participate in many of these activities.

Ultimately, the notion of “border” and its multiple meanings all refer back to a crucial question: what evolutions – perhaps more so than they are revolutions – in the nexus of human values and the global Internet? This workshop explores the forms of shaping – and sharing – of the “network of networks” that are revealed by the Internet borders of today.

Francesca Musiani

Chercheuse postdoctorale, MINES ParisTech Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, Georgetown University

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Francesca Musiani

Chercheuse postdoctorale, MINES ParisTech Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, Georgetown University

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