Just under 10 years ago, Ronald Deibert founded the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, creating a unique space — a hothouse of sorts — where engineers, mathematicians, social scientists, and economists could treat cyberspace as a giant petri dish and examine its social and technical trajectories. It has had a transformative impact, not least in empowering pro-democracy activists, writes Rafal Rohozinski (right). But as authoritarian regimes learn and adapt to counter liberation technology, cyberspace is being fiercely contested.
Cyberspace now encompasses approximately two-thirds of humanity. With more of us online, the space increasingly takes on the characteristics of any other social and political space, one riven by cooperation as well as competition.
The culture of cyberspace is changing.
While the West provided cyberspace with its Ur template – the United States and Europe now take up under 40% of cyberspace. Its center of gravity, in demographic terms, is moving to the South and the East. Some of the fastest growing online populations are emerging from the world’s weakest states – the fragile and the failed.
These changes are already having an effect on cyberspace, including a tsunami of cybercrime, as those living in poverty, with little chance of advancement, recognize that it’s a lot safer to commit a ‘victimless cybercrime – like defrauding a Canadian bank – than it is to fight over a fistful of rubles in the decaying alleyways of Ekatarinasburg.
This shift is also empowering – witness the color revolutions of the former Soviet Union in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, or the current Arab spring that has overturned ossified quasi-authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. While each of these upheavals has roots in a complex mix of factors, it is difficult to deny the central role of cyberspace.
The new generation of digital natives that propelled these upheavals was born into a universe of pervasive satellite television, mobile telephony, and the Internet. They were plugged in, switched on, and able to rapidly and virally network in ways which were difficult for security forces to conceive of, much less counteract.
But states are not turning a blind eye.
In China, the Great Firewall and an army of censors work diligently to maintain Orwell’s vision of a memory hole that sanitizes the past and provides citizens only with a vision in line with the regime’s wishes.
In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard challenges the opposition in cyberspace, using Facebook-like technology to post pictures of protesters and seek collaborators. In Burma, Belarus, and more than 45 other states, regimes have adopted a range of techniques, including technical filtering, prosecution, competition, and raising their own armies of counter bloggers, to actively compete in this space.
Between a third and a half of the world’s online population lives in states where cyberspace is censored, surveilled, or otherwise controlled, according to the work of the Citizen Lab and the OpenNet Initiative -
There are dark clouds on the horizon as such competition intensifies.
Transparency and accountability are vital, especially of public institutions, as the global governance of cyberspace is complex and difficult for politicians to grasp. The slope between good intentions and the road to hell is a slippery one. Because of the global nature of cyberspace, ideas that may be well-founded in one context are applied to completely different ends elsewhere.
Countering terrorism online becomes a means of silencing legitimate opposition. Filtering inappropriate content becomes the basis for faith-based censorship which deems anything that challenges the social status quo to be culturally unacceptable. In Saudi Arabia, it is ”haram”(unacceptable) for a woman to send a smiley by SMS as that constitutes revealing her face.
The governance of cyberspace, cyber security, and translating our values into this globally connected space are mind bogglingly complex issues. We stand at a precipice in deciding whether the future of cyberspace will that of a global commons, a Commonwealth that empowers us all by facilitating the free flow of knowledge, ideas, and capital, or whether it is parceled up, gated, and turned into private gardens by a confluence of economic and political interests.
“The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be made accessible to every individual,” H.G. Wells prophetically wrote in 1937:
It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart. It can be reproduced exactly and fully in Peru and China, Iceland, Central Africa or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once the concentration of the cranial animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
Cyberspace has emerged as the “World Brain” that Wells envisaged, but it remains immature and complex, similar to that of an adolescent making the difficult transition into its teenage years.
Its future, therefore, entirely depends on our engagement and commitment to ensuring that the debate over the future of cyberspace remains informed, and that cyberspace evolves into a Commonwealth defined by openness, transparency, and accountability.
Rafal Rohozinski is a Senior Scholar at the Canada Center for Global Security Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. This post is adapted from his acceptance speech on behalf of the Citizen Lab, the recipient of this year’s Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom award.