The Internet Beyond Borderless versus Balkanized

When nations speak of the internet today, they no longer use the language of the virtual, but of soil. At the dawn of the internet, cyberspace was framed as a new realm decoupled from the state. This digital sphere stretched across the globe, making it essentially ungovernable. Yet over the last twenty years, this view has steadily been eroded, replaced instead by a vision of the internet as an extension of national territory. An array of technologies have arisen, both infrastructural and legal, that aim to align a nation’s digital domain with its geopolitical domain, to marry its network with its physical boundaries and political interests—to create a domestic internet in the shape of the state. How do these forces impose territoriality on a system that is supposedly global and ungovernable? And how does the architecture of the internet enable or frustrate these efforts at bordering?

The internet was originally imagined to be a borderless realm. As the internet was adopted into more mainstream use in the mid-nineties, it was accompanied by the language of cyberspace. Cyberspace, it was argued, constituted a new realm in itself. On a technical level, the flexibility of network architectures seemed diametrically opposed to the nation-state and its hard-edged boundaries. Yet this architecture also led easily into a compelling political claim of being free from the legacies of state and soil. The development of this “exciting new domain” promised a global or international space that was “potentially free of conventional politics, social order and social regulation” (Wall 1997, 208).

For many, this borderless world would not and could not be governed. “Governments of the Industrial World,” Barlow (1996) declared, “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders… Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us… Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere.” While Barlow’s views emerged from a radical strain of politics, the ungovernable internet was taken up by far more mainstream politicians. In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton noted that Chinese authorities were already trying to crack down on the internet. “Good luck,” quipped Clinton (2000), “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” The internet epitomized the free circulation of free speech. Any effort to impose a national set of values on this domain, to force it into a national mold, would only end in failure.

Along with cyberspace, terms like the information superhighway also posited a borderlessness, even if framed in different terms. As Tim May stated (1999): “National borders aren’t even speed bumps on the information superhighway.” Through digitization, organization, and connection, the internet would take the storehouse of the world’s information, once the domain of exclusive libraries and elite countries, and make it available for all. This information superhighway would allow data to flow wherever it was needed, rendering the boundaries of the nation-state superfluous. The new borderless world was characterized by globalized flows of information, argued Ohmae (2005: 20) “it is absurd to believe that lines drawn on maps can have any impact on its movements.”

Two decades later, those visions have been increasingly eroded to the point of seeming somewhat naive. Stepping into their place is a vision of cyber sovereignty, “a natural extension of national sovereignty in the network environment” (Wang 2014). In this vision, the singular Internet should gradually be transformed into “our” internet, a national territory where norms should be defined, threats should be defended against, and borders should be enforced. “Behind the mists and magic of the Internet lies an older and stronger order,” asserted Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith (2006: ix), an order based on national laws and sovereign governance—a territorial order. Over twenty years, an array of techniques have been developed that assist states in imposing this order on the supposedly global and ungovernable internet.

The first of these techniques is data localization. For cloud companies, if data was certainly stored somewhere, that “where” used to be “wherever.” Such a view is increasingly at odds with the state-led push towards a territorial understanding of data. Cross-border laws seek to govern when and how data can be transferred into another jurisdiction. Information according to these frameworks is not swirling in some nebulous realm “out there”, but is housed in data centers located inside the borders of the nation-state. As one scholar wrote (Duggal 2018), these cross-border laws challenge “countries to adapt pre-digital modes of national sovereignty and economic competition to a digital industry that thrives on borderless and seamless exchange of information.” While the internet may be global, “their” internet has clear boundaries. Indeed, one of the core aspects of cross-border laws examined by legal scholars are their “territorial effect”, the properties specifying what types of data are covered and under what conditions this data may be transferred outside the nation. Data itself has a geographical location, a place that lies inside or outside of the dotted line of the nation-state. From Malaysia to South Korea and Japan, an array of Asian countries have passed or are currently considering cross-border legislation (Girot 2018).

As a result of this understanding, governments are placing companies under increased pressure to store and process this data in domestic data centers. In Chander and Le’s (2015) formulation, these localization strategies collectively construct a kind of “data nationalism.” China’s cybersecurity law, a rough analog of the EU’s GDPR, requires that “all personal information and other key data produced and gathered… must be stored in servers located in mainland China” (Koty 2017). In the United States, GovCloud promises cybersecurity by offering a data center infrastructure “operated by employees who are U.S. citizens on U.S. soil” (Amazon 2020). Such language of soil and citizenry, dismissed as irrelevant two decades ago, points to the resurgence of territoriality within an internet context. Cross-border legislation frames data as a sovereign resource, information that is both inside the nation and linked to a national subject. 

Alongside data localization, the increasing use of internet shutdowns represents a crude but powerful form of sovereignty. These intentional disruptions render the internet “inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information” (Taye 2018: 2). Certainly shutdowns have taken place in countries typically regarded as authoritarian: Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Russia (Taye 2018: 2). However the world leader in shutdowns is a democracy—India. India not only shuts down its internet more than all other countries combined, but is doing so more often, with the number of shutdowns ramping up over the last few years to become the “new normal” (Suresh 2019).

For India, the internet is not a public good that must remain constantly available, but a national infrastructure that can and should be switched off as necessary. Shutdowns in Kashmir, for instance, are justified by stating that they prevent the harmful spread of information, defuse tensions, and maintain order. Regardless of its ability to quell civil unrest, the key point here is that the shutdown frames the internet as “our” internet. Rather than a universal and global resource, this internet becomes a domestic infrastructure, a territory that follows the footprint of the nation-state and ends at the border. Along with this geographical link to the nation, there is also a link via power. Shutdowns flex a state’s sovereign control, demonstrating a nation’s ability to exert a crude but devastating force over their infrastructure by turning it off entirely. 

Next to shutdowns, filtering or blocking presents a more sophisticated form of territorialisation. Information on a domestic network can be filtered by hardware or software-based firewalls. Control at this “digital border” allows packets to be modified, diverted, or ignored altogether, aiming to construct an internet shaped in the image of the state. Of course the prime example in any discussion of filtering is China and its so-called Great Firewall. By filtering out polluting material “aimed at undermining the unity and sovereignty of China,” engineers sought to create their own distinct version of the internet, “a Net that has Chinese characteristics” (Barme and Ye 1997).

Filtering information seeks to remove or block media that is considered objectionable according to both governmental legislation and societal norms. In this sense, filtering inherently frames the internet as an extension of national territory. To counter the dangerous and unfiltered information “out there,” technical mechanisms control the kind of information allowed into a country. The aim is to align the digital territory of China with its physical territory, to eliminate any kind of disparity when a subject moves between offline and online environments. For Xi Jinping (Economy 2018) “there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards.”

What inspires this territorialization of the internet through shutdowns, localization, and filtering? Certainly one motivation is control. For states, these techniques aim to claw back a degree of authority over a domain seen as frustratingly slippery. When the internet becomes a tinder box that may ignite tensions—or more cynically, a site of counter-protest or embarrassment for the political establishment—then states want the ability to clamp down on these communications.

Yet perhaps more justifiably, these measures also kick back against a “universal” vision of the internet long recognized as implicitly US-led. For some nations, the supposedly global internet appears more like American dominance enjoyed by a handful of technological giants: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and others. These corporations are aligned with the technolibertarian ideologies of Silicon Valley and the broader Western values of consumerism and individualism (Leetaru 2019). For states with more authoritarian leanings, a shift from the global Internet to a national internet allows them to strip out these unwanted values and begin embedding their own ideals. 

For critics, such moves put the internet in danger of balkanization, where the global internet becomes fragmented into dozens of nationalised and incompatible networks. Urgent calls to prevent balkanization can increasingly be found in mainstream outlets, from technology blogs and civic organisations to political magazines. Yet, examining the literature, the world has stood on the edge of the balkanization precipice for twenty years. Anxieties around fragmentation emerged as early as 1997 and have continued uninterrupted since then, with each scholar proclaiming the end of the “free and open” internet. 

Despite the hand-wringing of these critics, the internet was always already balkanized. The singular “Internet” implies a cohesive and overarching network that spans the globe. But the internet is better understood as a system of systems, a network of networks. And along with this technical fragmentation, each network also possesses a degree of autonomy emerging from its unique social, cultural, and historical development. This is why scholars can chronicle the emergence of the Chinese internet (Negro 2017; Griffiths 2019), the Cuban internet (Harris 2015), the attempt and failure to construct the Soviet internet (Peters 2017), and so on. These observations show how fragmentation has always been integral to the internet, both in technical architecture and historical development. 

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “balkanization” as a specter is that it replaces a myth of the borderless internet with another myth of the tightly bordered internet. Based on an (idealized) Westphalian model, the world is carved up into “spatially exclusive units” without overlapping jurisdictions (Caporaso 2000: 7). In this vision, each nation’s internet conforms perfectly to the dotted lines of their national boundaries.

There is certainly a shift towards territorialization, with nations framing these networks as an extension of sovereign space. However, these territories are messy and their borders are permeable. The state dream of territorialization remains incomplete, and this is not due merely to technical inability, but because the nation derives its identity from entities outside itself. As a brief example to close, we can point to the “troll army” of Diba. China’s Great Firewall can be crossed using virtual private networks, or VPNs. Using these technologies, Diba’s thousands of online activists jump the firewall in order to attack individuals and institutions that they declare have offended the nation. In venturing outside the domestic internet and onto platforms like Facebook and Twitter, their campaigns overtly disobey the sociotechnical borders established by the state. And yet these “extraterritorial” activities seek primarily to reinforce the authority of the Party and bolster the concept of the nation for its inhabitants. Their actions show how the territory is shaped by activities outside it; the identity and stability of the nation is derived from its surroundings. This “porous” territory presents a counter image to the simplistic dichotomy of borderless vs balkanized, offering a more nuanced view of state attempts at internet nationalization.

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