By Marwa Azelmat
Cyberspace is often presented as a purely non-legal domain. This view is based on a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that cyberspace is different from real spaces: its aterritorial, borderless and ubiquitous aspects differentiate it from the physical and bounded spaces that are subject to legal regulation. The second assumption is that cyberspace should remain an open, decentralised and participatory space not hampered by legal regulations. Yet, the view that cyberspace is subject to law and indeed to international law is not in dispute anymore.
To fully grasp the issues surrounding cyberspace, we need to look at two major social forces: the first concerns the growing role of the state in cyberspace, and the second points to the changing demographics of cyberspace. It is the confluence of these two broad developments that have a dramatic impact on human rights and democracy.
The growing role of the state in cyberspace
The role of the state in cyberspace has shifted historically. Thirty years ago, surveys of government policy towards the internet showed that there were very few governments who were even thinking about the internet at all. Back in that time, people in the internet industry were complaining that governments were not focusing on the internet enough. Fast forward to today, and the situation is reversed. Not only are most states very concerned about the internet; cybersecurity is ranked typically number one among threat concerns for most government actors.
It was perhaps inevitable that the state would get involved. But the most crucial reason behind states’ involvement in cyberspace today came as a result of 9/11. It was the one moment that most fundamentally changed how states viewed cyberspace, and that thereby accelerated the role states have come to play in it. And many of the changes we can see have huge repercussions; the worldwide rise of censorship and surveillance of cyberspace are early warning signs that connected societies need to take seriously in order to safeguard and promote human rights and democracy.
The Internet is taking data that used to be locked behind closed doors and filing cabinets, and entrusting that information to third parties. Most of these third parties are private companies collecting information for business purposes. They are often headquartered in jurisdictions other than the ones that the consumers of that technology are citizens of. Each of them can gain access to our communications, our social networks, even our files and photographs. The best example is our mobile device. Even when we are not using it, it is emitting a pulse every few seconds looking for the nearest cellphone tower or WiFi router. Basically, we are carrying around these powerful tracking devices that emit information about our habits and movements. This information does not just evaporate. It sits on the servers of the companies that own and operate the infrastructure that we depend on.
Knowing what goes on beneath the surface is an essential element of citizenship today. How information is exchanged and structured can influence our choices as citizens, what we do with our lives, and which opportunities are available to us.
If information about how technologies and companies use our data is hidden, then we are acting only with partial information or by ignorance. Lifting the lid on the technological environment around us is essential for the protection of liberty, freedom of expression and the exercise of human rights today.
The changing face of cyberspace
Cyberspace was initially seen as the purest form of democracy, where everyone’s voice would be heard and where information would be freely accessed and shared. And yet, what we see instead is the opposite. Virtually everywhere, there is a dramatic rise of forces that curtail our access to information, invade our privacy and seek to stifle the freedoms with which we have come to associate cyberspace. In other words, cyberspace has changed into a politically contested space. And many of the fundamental freedoms of cyberspace and its capacities to liberate, emancipate, even democratise have come under threat.
Nowadays, individuals and small groups can present threats to international peace and security through acts of terrorism or mass shootings. These individuals often radicalise one another and share information through the internet. Another problem is troll factories. In these troll factories, individuals, usually millennials, sit in offices all day long, lined up almost like a factory, to try and influence others online. These “trolls” are running multiple personas; sometimes they might be arguing with you, consuming your time online. Other times they try and persuade you to turn to their cause. Other times, they try to spread information or misinformation so that they can have people working on behalf of them.
As a consequence, government agencies have started to engage in mass surveillance and have targeted surveillance of entire populations. At the very same time, those populations are displaying more and more of their lives digitally. Thus, this is a dramatic shift in public/private relations and state/civil society relations. And it is not just happening in one country; it is happening all around the world. Governments spend millions of dollars setting up everything from research institutions in universities to study online criminal activity, to literal military units and intelligence units designed to monitor citizens.
The idea of using the internet not just in the traditional sense of cybersecurity, but to limit the flow of information or to spread false information is also something we can see very prominently. In China, there is what has become known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’. The Chinese government has one of the most sophisticated systems of internet censorship. An army of over two million employees has been hired to decide what kind of information can enter into China, which websites need to be blocked, and even which particular phrases or words should be banned. But China has now gone a step further with what they call their social scoring system, where there will be certain things that are banned, but in turn, you will receive a score based on your behaviour, your networks, your friends and your family’s behaviour online. How much are you pushing the party line? The score is something that will reverberate back in the real world, where it might determine which school your kids get into to, whether you get a loan or what kind of jobs you might get. So if we browse through cyberspace today, what we see – literally everywhere – is a development where the state has asserted its role in the global commons we now call the internet.
Technology is, indeed, a powerful tool for human rights. The development of social media tools has enabled activists to spread their word more quickly and to broader audiences. Emerging technologies significantly improved the quality of data upon which decisions for the benefit of society are made. However, technology should never steal our freedoms and rights for the sake of development.
To conclude, this blog calls on states to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to govern internet issues, and to transform the internet into a standard, participatory space where everyone’s voice is heard and no one is left behind.
Marwa is an IT Engineer, who majored in coding and cyber security. She has worked for UNESCO as a Youth Leader and UN Women for the Youth Gender Innovation Agora, where she worked on promoting women in peace and security. Marwa describes herself as a digital peacebuilder who strives to build resilient societies through IT and peace journalism.