“The struggle against out own weaknesses (…) whatever difficulties the enemy may put in our way, this struggle against ourselves is the most difficult of all, both in the present and the future of our peoples.”
(Amilcar Cabral, 1966).
“Our problem is not the problem of governance in cyberspace. Our problem is a problem with governance.”
(Lawrence Lessig, 1998).
Digital interconnectivity is one of the most relevant challenges of our time. Many societies have become as dependent on this space as on energy, money or language. Ultimately, this interconnectivity is inseparable from the acceleration of mundialization in the last seven decades, making every corner of the planet more dependent on and related to every other corner of the planet, one way or another. The much-hailed digital revolution played its part in this growing planetary interconnection, strengthening and transforming it in the last twenty years. In other words, a digital mundialization is underway and advancing rapidly and irreversibly, creating an interdependent reality from village level to global scale, with all the ups and downs this entails. Far from being a peripheral change, this state of interdependence, which both makes up and goes beyond the digital dimension, causes a major shift in the sociopolitical architecture.
While this movement continues to accelerate, the digital sphere develops in an architecture of international relations, citizenship, economics and power, manufactured in other historic periods and sealed by a series of geopolitical ruptures. It doesn’t just burst suddenly into this context; it causes it, and it exceeds it. We could almost say that electronic communication and the technology that sustains it, i.e. the internet, were invented in the cracks of this architecture. They flow in its interstices like a transnational fluid—to paraphrase Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman— that mostly evades the restrictions to which human activities are traditionally tied. In turn, the digital universe does not orbit in an absence of powers; various regulatory mechanisms already existed from its beginnings. But now that the digital sphere has climbed higher up the strata of power, more searching questions have to be asked about its own regulation and the question of its interaction with other social and international dynamics.
Electronic communications have entered more firmly than ever today the orbit of global power disputes. Various signs indicate that these communications are going through a period of inflection and to some extent a crisis of growth. From now on, it will be hard to apprehend them without understanding the course of the global chessboard, its contradictions and disputes. In this regard, the challenge in the digital sphere raises two questions. Firstly, because here we seeing a first attempt at collective management of a complex, mundialized, supranational communication system. Aside from its young, unfinished nature, this first attempt of some thirty years constitutes an unprecedented experience of collective management of a supranational good and new interdependences. An attempt of this nature takes on greater relevance if one admits that the current scarcity of political responses to these global (and regional) interdependencies is a central problem of our times. Secondly, because the open nature of the digital sphere leads to a very extensive range of collective action. As a global commons, the digital sphere is the business of imaginaries, citizenship, communication technologies, social struggles, public policies, rights, industrial conflicts and interests, and geopolitical potencies. This kind of plebeian space in a thousand layers in the electronic terrain leads us to a central issue, namely that of defending the internet as a common good and putting it at the service of general interests. In other words, it is a question of consolidating a social, citizen framework capable of sustaining what we can call a horizon of digital democracy.
To investigate this perspective here, we will try to answer the following questions: What stage are we at today in the digital sphere and how do we deal with the dynamics that drive it? How do we consolidate a regulatory framework that can manage the internet fairly, democratically and effectively? How do we implement changes in the current architecture of international relations that influence, in short, how digital resources are managed? These questions are neither self-evident nor simple, and beyond the scope of this article. Our intention is to sketch out the main pillars and lines of action.
A digital revolution trapped in the web of world power
Observing the digital space is by no means a simple task. Numerous angles are needed to investigate this complex, opaque environment. Furthermore, we do not have a methodology1 to analyze this dynamic space. Its continuous evolution constantly modifies criteria for reading and comparing. Furthermore, analyses are often wrapped up in a narrative of permanent revolution which while showing certain disruptive changes, does not reflect the inherent complexity of sociotechnological transformations, transformations that Schumpeter and Kondratiev systemized with regards to industrial revolutions in the last century. In simple terms, what are the most structural, emergent or anecdotal impacts of digital expansion? Is the rise of digital industry monopolies and the mass capture of data the main milestone of the moment? Is it the complex factors of risk and technological insecurity, amplified by the mass surveillance implemented by some industrial states? Is it the growing presence of artificial intelligence, of algorithms and platforms of services incompatible with the basics of social communication and democracy? Is it the geopolitical rivalries among the United States, China and Russia, and more broadly of emerging countries? Or is it the evolutionary geometry of the internet under the effect of its use and of its expansion into an “internet of things”? In his survey of over fifty countries, journalist Frédéric Martel pointed out that there are numerous local and regional2 nuances in terms of internet cultures and uses, which cannot be reduced to a global whole. All these dynamics are related to each other, without a single approach becoming the sole explanatory variable, whether geopolitical, economic or technological.
Following this dynamic logic, let us take a general overview of some facts, signs and trends of the last decade to sketch a picture of the digital sphere. In general terms, half the population of the planet is involved today as internet users. Around fifty percent are in Asia3, a proportion that is set to grow. The access growth curve shows mass entry to the internet in recent years, thanks to mobile access which, while still not widespread in the whole human population, is synonymous with democratic access via digital resources. There has been notable adaptability and stability in the structure of electronic communication to sustain this exponential growth and contain more and more services and users. In terms of the modality of interaction, globally we continue in the model of web 2.0, which began in about 2003. That is, a modality where users post their content and interact directly online. Today, most data traffic, which doubles every two years, is generated by users and their own devices. This growth stage has led to an exponential concentration of certain resources, particularly servers and storage, summed up particularly in the metaphor of cloud computing. The web 3.0 stage is starting to appear now, in which the experience of internet users is more formatted by algorithms and where an “Internet of things” comes into play. This new stage foreshadows a new leap in connectivity, meaning a new level of dependences and vulnerabilities on the internet. This will most probably cause an evolution towards a more decentralized geometry, not necessarily equivalent to a demonopolization, with digital traffic mostly generated by these devices. The semantic web 3.0 has not succeeded in expanding any further.
In terms of content, the internet has become the main space for alternative expression in a landscape where traditional media lacks plurality on a global level and is becoming increasingly concentrated. The same trend is developing partly in digital media, but within a logic that allows for greater asymmetric coexistence. The small and the weak can exist more easily and fight for public opinion with big media. In 2011, the last major episode of this kind on the international stage, the viralization of mobilizations in Tunisia, led to the explosion of a wave of protests in the Mediterranean and throughout the Arab world. Aside from the political result of this movement, social media is in one way or another strengthening a public opinion that weighs like a new centre of gravity in imaginaries and on the political stage. In a less massive way but bringing with it major ruptures, collaborative practices coordinated on the internet are becoming consolidated, often on a territorial level, reinventing the way goods and services are accessed. For example, one study into forty experiences of local currencies5 in Europe shows that these initiatives pursue above all goals that are of use to society, territorially resilient, with responsible consumption and democratization of the currency. Numerous experiences of this type spread over digital technologies, taking advantage of their potential for connectivity.
In economic terms, 2017 certainly marked a major shift as the top ten of leading world businesses included seven corporations in the new information technologies sector. Most are US companies, reflecting the position the United States still holds in this domain, but two of them are Chinese (Tencent and Alibaba.) The technology sector now leads the stock market, ahead of the oil and finance sectors. According to various studies, the internet now channels a gross product equivalent to the sixth economy in the world. It drives twenty per cent of growth in advanced economies. These figures illustrate a cyberindustrial revolution underway, in an economy where the incorporation of immaterial factors in production processes is increasing. While immaterial capital had already drawn level in the 1980s with material investment in various productive sectors of advanced countries5, this trend has continued to rise. This volume could be in the region today of eighty per cent of corporate investment. In 2006, the component of immaterial capital in the gross domestic product of various countries was up to sixty per cent, including an increasingly large proportion of information technologies. In terms of employment and international division of labour, it is estimated that this qualitative shift in the economy has wiped out ten per cent of jobs in Europe since 1990, while it is estimated that forty to sixty per cent of the labour force in the same region will suffer the effects of automation in the coming decades. In this context, it is realistic to claim that the internet has become the nervous system of the economy and modern society. All economic sectors are going through these changes, but particularly communications, services, finance and insurance, and trade, with major reconfigurations in the way they are organized.
While this transition and growth continues, digital resources are being homogenized and hyperconcentrated in an unprecedented manner. The digital experience of an internet user ten years ago was freer and more diverse, although with more limited services in comparison with those of today. The range of services has expanded but their interaction is framed far more within an ecosystem of hegemonized services. Each ecosystem tends to be structured as an oligopoly, letting innovations develop outside of their ecosystem to often assimilate them and extend their market6. This concentration can be measured from several angles. No less than eighty-five per cent of global online advertising income now moves through Google and Facebook. Both companies channel around seventy-five per cent of traffic to news sites through managing social networks. In other words, they have become central access points and components of the infrastructure of the digital space, with all that this implies in terms of control and corporate responsibility. This concentration is not only of relevance to the giants of the digital industry. In the case of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, an alternative decentralized from the current monetary system, ninety-five per cent of wealth is concentrated in the hands of four per cent of its users. These monopolistic logics are unprecedented and exponential in the digital sector. They have stirred much debate in the economy about what Joseph Stiglitz calls a “new era of monopolies.” Consequently, digital data, their storage in data centres, their monetization and capacity for gaining intelligence from them has become established as one of the strategic pillars of this industry. In this sector, more than in any other, the lack of regulation and accountability feeds a kind of “shadow industry” that contradicts the founding spirit of the internet and various principles of international law.
On a state and interstate level, electronic connectivity has continued to have a disturbing effect on various foundations of international life, particularly on the level of dispersion of power, erosion of the sovereignty of the State and of international law. However, this disturbance is far from translating into a Copernican shift in international relations or into a radically alternative architecture in terms of the politics of digital resources. The United States continues to be the leading power in this domain, with increasingly serious competition from other countries. A new era began with Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 on the extent of the global surveillance policy. This showed the volume of resources that “imperial republics”—to paraphrase Raymon Aron—invest in intercepting electronic communications, in complicity with private actors. On the one hand, this generated a crisis of confidence, exposing a double standard of regulation, characteristic of what we can find in other transnational questions.
On the other hand, it triggered a break-up in the unity of the internet, with a trend towards re-territorializing its regulation on a national or regional scale. The most extreme examples of this trend are China and Russia. In 2013, a French Senate report into digital matters in the EU went with the title The European Union: Colony of the Digital World? It will not be until May 2018 that the EU will manage to bring into force a number of stricter privacy laws. All this has contributed to eroding the trust of public opinion and the hegemony of the United States, perceived as a new aristocracy in the digital era. Despite the promises and diplomatic pressure of emerging countries expressed in the 2013 Montevideo Declaration and at NetMundial in Brazil in 2014, US diplomacy has shown no signs of ceding ground in the running of critical internet resources. In late 2017, Donald Trump decided to put an end to the principle of net neutrality. There is no indication that the United States will alter its project of supremacy in digital technologies that Bill Clinton and Al Gore began in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the digital sphere has become a deeper strategic challenge in which a new race for power is underway. Doctrines are progressively permeating strategic environments and defence apparatus. In 2010, NATO organized the first meeting on the protection of strategic global commons. In the field of soft power, both Russia and the United States are channelling their efforts towards IT rivalry and intensifying propaganda. In the 2016 US elections, in Ukraine, in Syria, to name just three examples, the wagers of violence experiment with new forms of globalization in their strategies, but now via the internet. We see that cyber war and artificial intelligence have become a new challenge7. However, aside from the war of words and the lack of a critical perspective8, cyber attacks have had disturbing rather than destructive effects so far. In recent years, we have seen that the weaknesses that inevitably come with greater interconnectivity lead to an erosion of the digital rights and freedoms of states. This erosion is implemented in the name of control, national security or commercial interests. A sign of this trend can be seen in the twofold increase every year in blocks on the internet or the closure of domains.
In this context, civilians have been travelling along a road that is narrower, but more active. Recently, the organizations that participate in internet regulatory agencies have increasingly reported the polarization of positions and corporate influence. This situation led in 2014 to the initiative of the Internet Social Forum, marking a break with the Forum’s level of internet governance. In recent years, a mosaic of digital resistances has gradually formed nationally, regionally and globally. This was the case of the international demonstrations over the ACTA from 2006 to 2010. In India, Facebook’s Free Basics was rejected in 2015 thanks to a well-organized citizen campaign. In Europe between 2015 and 2016, various demonstrations succeeded in bringing pressure on the European Union to maintain the principle of neutrality. In Latin America, to counter security projects that initially dominated the Brazilian Congress, in 2014 Brazil successfully created the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet law, sanctioned by Dilma Roussef. More university centres and organizations have got involved in the conceptual exploration of the digital sphere and the promotion of digital rights, both in societies of the North and the South. There have also been a number of direct experiments in the decentralized sovereign use of digital resources, in the terrain of social communication, communication networks, local currencies, open knowledge, peer-to-peer, free software and many other sectors of activity. These alternatives have grown in recent years in response to the corporatization of digital resources, forming a very diverse and heterogeneous constellation of initiatives. However, transnational communication facilitated by the internet does not appear so far to have given a sufficient boost so that civil society is capable of making its influence felt more deeply in global trends. In other words, the transnational circulation of knowledge and information, as well as the new possibility of coordinating on the internet, does not appear to have led to a new phase of organization.
As well as these developments, it is important to take into account that the digital sphere is evolving in a world that is still regulated by a more or less contained anarchy, where international law gives way to power relationships and economic competition. Digital communication could perhaps embody a certain vision of “exceptionality,” somehow evading the forces of the international space, which was partly the case in the early days of the internet three decades ago. It continues to be so as long as its regulatory model does not enter totally into the traditional framework of national states or multilateralism. However, the realities we have covered here show that the new dependencies that come with connectivity clash with other frictions in global geopolitics. Its general lines of division are reproduced in terms of inequality, concentration, strategic disputes, and deregulation. This crossroads is not exclusive to electronic communication. We can observe it in other areas, such as the regulation of the weather, collective security, or human migration. They are all essentially related to the limits of the present architecture of international relations in understanding and tackling new interdependencies that make up the web of world power. This web constitutes “something more” than the mere juxtaposition of national and international powers. More broadly, it has to do with an era of world governance, that is, a capacity to interpret and respond politically to the levels of complexity underlying local and global spheres. The internet is already closely wound up with this matter. This leads us in a way to the question we asked at the beginning. If on the one hand it is necessary to transform the interior of the digital sphere, it also becomes necessary to enquire how to influence the sociopolitical architecture that surrounds it. The internet, as a technology for the interchange of data, emerges as a new dimension of transnational interdependences. This gives it a unique role to invent forms of management adapted to mundialization and therefore to citizenship.
1 We can see initiatives of an overall report on the internet in, for example, Global Internet Report, Internet Society.
2 Martel, Frédéric (2014), Smart. Enquête sur les internets.
3 According to data provided by Internet World Stats.
4 Alternatives Économiques (May 2016), Réinventer la monnaie, France.
5Bouvard, Loïc. Calame, Pierre (1988), Le dialogue des entreprises et du territoire, editions Charles Léopold Mayer.
6 For example, Google acquired fifty-seven companies during 2011.
7Hence the concept of Revolution in Military Affairs in the United States, which had been more anticipated in Russia.
8 Various analysts point out the “thirst for certainties”, the overvaluing of analytical and the fetishizing of artificial intelligence which tend to bias strategic reflections.