Do a Global Internet and Its Technologies Supercede Country Borders?

Posted: May 23, 2011 in Industry Research, Mobile Technology, Politics, Technology
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Just because twitter is an American company, does it not have to play by other countries’ laws when it becomes embroiled in legal cases involving free speech?

That’s exactly the sort of mess that Twitter finds itself in today in the U.K. where a “British soccer player has been granted a so-called super-injunction, a stringent and controversial British legal measure that prevents media outlets from identifying him, reporting on the story or even from revealing the existence of the court order itself” in order to avoid being identified by name in scandalous tweets.  Unfortunately for the player, the super injunction has been ineffective and “tens of thousands of Internet users have flouted the injunction by revealing his name on Twitter, Facebook and online soccer forums, sites that blur the definition of the press and are virtually impossible to police.”

But I would argue that what is being blurred here is not necessarily the definition of the press, but rather the physical borders of a country where it meets the nebulous nature of the net.

How do we reconcile the physical, geographical and legal boundaries in which we live with the boundless expanses of the internet? I’m sure many people would agree that the democratic (in that it’s arguably free, fair and participatory) nature of Twitter’s platform and mission is inherently American. That Twitter’s ‘Americanness’ is built into its very code. So how do you transplant an American messaging platform such as Twitter’s in other countries and then expect it to be above or fly below the laws of another country?

“Last week…the athlete obtained a court order in British High Court demanding that Twitter reveal the identities of the anonymous users who had posted the messages.” But back in January of this year, as the New York Times reports, “Biz Stone, a Twitter founder, and Alex Macgillivray, its general counsel, wrote, ‘Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed.’”

So what law should be followed in this case? According to the NYTimes, “Because Twitter is based in the United States, it could argue that it abides by the law and that any plaintiff would need to try the case in the United States, legal analysts said. But Twitter is opening a London office, and the rules are more complicated if companies have employees or offices in foreign countries.”

Yet our technologies and our corporations are very much U.S. representatives overseas. Google’s, Microsoft’s, Twitter’s, etc. offices in other parts of the world are nearly tantamount to U.S. embassies abroad.  These companies in large part bear the brunt of representing American ideals and encapsulate American soft power. Even the average Chinese person who may never encounter a flesh-and-blood American will most likely interact with multiple different examples of American cultural goods in his or her lifetime, largely due to the global proliferation of our technologies and media. Which is why, in large part, Twitter and Google have been banned in China. Too democratic for the Chinese government’s liking.

In his chapter (Chapter 1.4) of the Global Information Technology Report (GITR), Cesar Alierta with Telefonica argues that we are in the middle of “the fifth revolution.” The first revolution was the Industrial Revolution, then came Steam Power, then Electricity, then Oil, and now we are in the Information and Communication technology revolution- the fifth. He writes, “Each of these eras has entailed a paradigm shift, more or less abrupt or disruptive, which has led to profound changes in the organization of the economy, starting with individual businesses, and eventually, transforming society as a whole.”

What if we assume that- even if it’s not the original intent- the tacit intent of a technology is to become embedded in someone’s life until it’s nearly impossible to remember living before it. If America’s technologies are little carriers of soft power democratic beliefs and practices, aren’t those beliefs also becoming embedded as well? If so, really, where do we draw the line about the use of a technology in a country other than the one where it was invented?

And though indeed this is an example of a conflict occurring between two very first world countries (the U.S. and the U.K.) This may be one of the greatest barriers to ICT adoption in emerging and developing economies.

In their chapter (Chapter 1.2) of the 2011 Global Information Technology report, Enrique Rueda-Sabater and John Garrity from Cisco Systems, Inc. argue that the “treatment of broadband networks…as basic infrastructure; the recognition that competition is one of the best drivers of technology adoption, and imaginative policies that facilitate access to spectrum and to existing infrastructure that can be shared by networks” are necessary preconditions to accelerated Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). However, the beliefs that underlie those preconditions, 1) that all citizens of a country deserve unlimited access to the internet as a basic human right, and 2) that competition (which can be read as capitalism here) is one of the best drivers of technology adoption, do not seem to necessarily be universal values.

Certainly the belief that unlimited access to the internet is a basic human right is a fast-growing belief among developed economies of the world. As Karim Sabbagh, Roman Friedrich, Bahjat El-Darwiche, and Milind Singh of Booz & Company write in their Chapter (Chapter 1.3) on “Building Communities Around Digital Highways,” “In July 2010…the Finnish government formally declared broadband to be a legal right and vowed to deliver high-speed access (100 megabytes per second) to every household in Finland by 2015. The French assembly declared broadband to be a basic human right in 2009, and Spain is proposing to give the same designation to broadband access starting in 2011.”

But Finland and Spain are both democracies, and France, is a republic with strong democratic traditions. Democracies tend to believe in transparency, accountability and the free dissemination of information, so naturally the adoption of technologies which put the ability to freely disseminate and consume information squarely in the hands of its people jibe with those beliefs. But that is not so in non-democratic societies. I would thus argue that some form of democracy, well-established, should also be considered as a pre-condition for the accelerated adoption of ICT.  And if a country has already heavily adopted and invested in ICT, just as Britain has, that then, as we have seen here, the accelerated deployment of ICT will also bring about accelerated petitioning for expanded democratic rights among its people.

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