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Programme two overview: nation states and the web

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Aleks Krotoski | 10:48 UK time, Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Over the past few weeks, we've been debating the issues we've earmarked for the first programme in the series: how has our social world been changed by the Web. The next theme we're tackling in Digital Revolution is another hefty one: it's about how - and indeed whether - the Internet is undermining governance and the nation-state. This post is a bullet point manifesto of sorts, an overview of my current thinking about the larger issues that fall into this bucket.

To start, it's ironic that Internet technology was devised and developed to protect the state, but is now being used to dismantle it. There are countless examples of this, from formal protests organised via Facebook, informal actions collected on Flickr, to international calls for action as a result of Twitter communication. The bottom line is that, although apathy remains high in more formal democratic activities (with the occasional surprise consequence), we are more plugged in and engaged in politics than we have been since Robert Putnam documented the decline in social capital in 1995.

Yet this is a different kind of politic: this is a global movement brought on by the deregulation of information and the technologies used to share it. We can now circumvent national propagandas, find out the stories from the mouths of the people who are experiencing them. Take, for example, the Baghdad Blogger, who gave a phenomenal first-hand account of living in a war zone in 2003; it opened our eyes to the real issues of the men and women on the streets, not just what we heard from the spokespeople, translated into palatable bureau-speak.

Although over the last few weeks we debated the new powers that have emerged that have re-asserted control structures on our access to knowledge, what is key is that it is now out of the hands of the governments, who struggle to grok it and to participate in it in an inclusive, effective and, well, non-cheesy way. Vint Cerf argues that the genie is out of the bottle: because 99% of the content that's on the Web is privately owned, the government can only own the pipeline that transmits it, not what flows.

Of course, there are many high profile, top-down attempts at regulation that government has tried to impose on the 'tubes: the contested three-strikes and you're out law in France that cuts off Web access to users accused of downloading copyrighted content, the rather embarrassing and Puritanical attempts by the UK government to protect us from the 'sick filth' on Wikipedia, the blanket ban of any virtual pornographic content in India, the selective information allowed in and out of China, the recent crackdown of information about the protests in Iran during and after their recent election. But in all of these examples, people have used the tools supplied by the Web to access content, to communicate with the outside world, to stage little and large protests. For our Western liberal democracies, this is what we're all about: what a win.

But let's play Devil's Advocate for a second. One of the fears that surrounds the emergence of a world government and the dissolution of the nation-states is the loss of individual and national autonomy. As we become a more globalised society, augmented by changes in communication technologies in particular, it becomes increasingly difficult to see our unique national differences. The global love-in that we've been projecting into our connected future that is based on virtual communities bound by common interests rather than geography celebrates the commonalities we have with people around the world, yes, but this is arguably a Western, individualist dogma. Is there a danger that this is a form of ideological imperialism being rolled out through a technology that, in large part, has come from a relatively small number of people in one physical space? Perhaps these governments are trying to act in what they feel are the interests of their populations by preserving their cultures from the onslaught of outsiders.

Perhaps cyberwarfare is another, more dramatic response.

This programme will try to deconstruct these issues. Over the next few weeks, we'll be looking at the websites that cut across national boundaries and have implemented their own unregulated communication, economic and governance systems. We'll be exploring whether the Internet needs to be regulated, and, if it does, the systems that need to be put into place to make sure the regulators don't step out of line. We'll traverse the multicultural Web, identifying the role non-Western countries have had in shaping how we communicate and what we consume, and we'll be detailing government's e-vulnerabilities.

These are the issues that will shape of the programme, and we're looking to you to help inform how they should be presented.


  • Comment number 1.

    "...Puritanical attempts by the UK government to protect us from the 'sick filth' on Wikipedia."

    Aleks - Where do you get the words 'sick filth' from? They don't appear in the article you link to.

    I wouldn't consider myself particularly 'puritanical' or a social or religious conservative; I have however worked with some survivors of child-abuse and that does inform my view-point.

    The girl in the image was 11 years old. The album was produced in an era before concern, or knowledge, of child sexual abuse was very high, but today social awareness is much higher.
    I doubt you'll find much support for opening the door to sites that contain thousands of such images. I doubt you'd be happy to live next to someone known to look at such material, particularly if you had young children yourself. Child pornography is child pornography.

    Interestingly within a day of the Wikipeadia story breaking, the record company and retailers had quietly replaced that cover on the album, CDS and their web pages etc. They formed their own judgment on its merits.

    I went into some of the legal and other arguments on the BBC Dot Life blog as to why such an image would be judged indecent if such a case went to court in the UK.

    It might be worth reading the entire thread, in its own way it did explore the issues surrounding the tensions between liberty and censorship on the web - and in the real world.

    To quote from another post (46) on that thread:
    "Not least because that such material on the web can involve children being coerced, or have non-consensual acts performed against them in order to produce such material.
    Such material also breaks societal norms as to what are agreed to be the differences between being a child and adult; that sex between adult and child (or sexual attraction by an adult towards children) can never be condoned or considered 'normal' behaviour, and that incest is a taboo that should not be broken.
    This is at heart about protecting children from adults that seek out such material and have sexual fantasies about young children.
    Anyone disagree with that? Make a case."

    Rather than reopen that debate, it might be worth referring to the Dot-Life thread first, it quite extensively covered this issue.

    PS. Not sure anyone fully Groks the Web, or could. :-)

  • Comment number 2.

    Altruism on a world wide scale harnessing the power of personal computers.


    This may be seen as a way of subsidising the usually government & commercial research funding to HE institutions that conduct research for private, public and charitable causes. Being international it removes national, political, ideological etc boundaries with (seemingly) no 'visible' presence by the individual computer owner to government, religion, commercial organisations etc.

    I first came across this idea in the late 90's when academics at Staffs University were using their desk top computers for folding@home. In 2000 we started to use our home based iMacG3 machines by signing up to folding@home for proteins research work. From 2005 for a year or so my son used both his MacMini and Powerbook for seti@home Not only is it the gift of spare capacity on the computer but (in the UK) the cost of electrical power plus the ISP and phone line costs that are being donated.

    As examples in this weeks online news I saw the following recent announcements:

    California Breast Cancer Research Program Joins World Community Grid™
    Imagine if the power of each of the world’s estimated 650 million PCs were linked to focus on defeating cancer. To make this dream a reality, the California Breast Cancer Research Program has become a partner of World Community Grid™, joining the IBM Corporation and a group of more than 225 leading associations, universities, companies, and foundations

    Intel Helps Convert Unused PC Processor Power Into an Instrument to Fight Disease and Study Climate Change

    So, does this mean that no matter what country an individual is in they can (secretly) support something which might be seen as controversial in the eyes of their government or religion?

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm really cross with myself/the web, as I spent no small time putting up a comment before leaving this evening and find it never loaded onto the page!

    Can I remember my point? :s

    Essentially, I was noting that both these posts above were excellently put.

    @shefftim, fair point; I leave it to Aleks to explain her words, rather than try to play advocate, which would likely do no one any favours. What I will say is that the Rory Cellan-Jones thread you link to is great. People really laid into that subject (and Rory himself - that wasn't about Apple v Microsoft, Rory!).

    @englishfolkfan - great links. I hadn't come across that particular organisation before; although it is similar to the BBC climate change experiment using spare CPU power we ran a few years ago.

    Would / could that methodology allow internet users to circumnavigate the barriers or denials set up by their own nation states (or the cyber attacks of others)? I don't know. What I do know is my £30 internet protection package and firewall always used to screech with indignant horror at the Kontiki programme whenever I tried to access 4oD and iPlayer, as it uses similar P2P technology to spread the load of downloads across the shoulders of its users (much as I believe Skype does).

    So, if that sends alarms wailing on a domestic computer, I'll wager the Great Firewall of China would take considerable umbrage at a P2P or similar process running en masse through its virtual borders.

    This said, the web and its ingenious programmers and users tend to find a way around obstacles (with glee).

    Funnily enough I was listening to the TWiT podcast on the way home and a quote came up I wished I'd had those minutes before when I posted (or not!) my original comment - The Streisand Effect which arises from an observation by John Gilmour that: 'The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it'

    Which frankly, I love as an idea. Does it hold water though?

  • Comment number 4.

    Global collaboration and awareness of the world give us a unique standpoint in human history. The idea of working together freely without direct profit is seen in the growth of Open Source. Given these two opportunities I have initiated an idea which have at its basis the use of our highest ideals to help as many people as possible.
    I hope this idea is of interest to you:
    Personally with or without me I do wish it to become a reality.

  • Comment number 5.

    Sorry I've been offline for a while, and glad you liked the thoughts about the crowd as a herd.

    Just a thought on nation-states:

    Back in the middle ages, Germany, like Italy, was a patchwork of tiny self-governing entities that made their own rules. Each was, in effect, a family business in competition with many other family businesses.

    Slowly, those family businesses 'conglomerated' to form larger states which eventually evolved into a small number of modern nations. These family businesses are now share-companies, in a sense, owned by their citizens.

    I've read historians and economists arguing that the driving force behind that was competition for wealth. Trade generates efficiencies, which lead to dismantling of trade barriers, standardisation, and a web of interdependence which makes local rules subordinate to the greater economy.

    The process continues today, with the EU and WTO being shining examples of supra-national organisations which are slowly eroding the sovereignty of nation-states in the name of the greater economic and social good. The pressing need for a global deal on climate change is another one.

    And of course, the internet is a major driving force in this process today. It's accelerating. Instead of hundreds of years to create modern Germany or Italy, we're seeing the process take decades in modern Europe. The level playing field provided by the internet in all information-based industries make a nonsense of national boundaries, and at the same time we're seeing the emergence of 'tribes' who are not defined by their nationality, as mentioned by others.

    Another kind of tribe, pardon me if someone already mentioned it, is the one I belong to: the migrant. I use a website (https://forumosa.com%29 which serves the foreign community in Taiwan. There are similar sites in other countries, and I assume there are places where people of different origins congregate online to talk about their new lives in the UK.

    We live in an increasingly mobile world, and there are now huge communities of migrants - and not only in the developed countries. Aside from the Britons who have been accounted for in places like Spain, the BBC reported a few years back that over one million men had departed the UK for reasons unknown: https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3601493.stm

    What does this mean for our concept of nationality? I read the BBC and watch UK television, but don't have a vote in 'my own' country because I don't physically reside there. Am I truly British? Plenty of people who don't speak good English and prefer to associate with people from their own culture are physically present in the UK and have qualified to vote. I'm not complaining, just questioning how the nation-state is defined these days and whether we need to reconsider our definition in the light of the changing social environment created by the internet.

    When borders mean nothing, and identity is a matter of preference rather than geography and birth, how does a government define it's remit?

    Final question: If a nation state created an army of online gamers, armed with magic swords and the like, which then 'invaded' some online space hosted in the UK, belonging to a British company, and forced all the other players to pay a 'tax' of online gold and/or obey certain rules that were not in the game, then what would be the result?

    All sorts of stuff takes place online (https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8132547.stm%29 that the players don't feel too happy about but which remains technically within the terms of service. In other words, are the owners allowed to close the accounts of the invading soldiers? Or could they be sued successfuly?

    Alternatively, would the government have an obligation to intervene by raising a defending cyber-army to 'fight for the territory' without contravening the underlying 'reality' of the virtual real-estate?

    Could the game's owners


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