Geopolitics can be defined as the study of rivalry between human groups over the control of a particular space. Such a space does not have one fixed meaning for all people and, making things more complex, its meaning changes over time. And then there is a whole new kind of space: cyberspace. Why is this concept relevant, and how common has the term cybergeopolitics become meanwhile?
Nazli Choucri (“Cyberpolitics in International Relations”) and Barney Warf (“Global Geographies of the Internet”) talk about this concept in recent interviews with ExploringGeopolitics.
Professor Choucri (photo right, at the start of article) stresses the strong impact of cyberspace on the human condition, arguing that it “has created a new reality for almost everyone and everywhere”.
In addition, Professor Warf (photo right) emphasises that internet itself is insufficient to create more equal individual opportunities at a global level as “geography continues to play a huge role in shaping who has access to the internet”.
This introduction reminds us that it is tempting to consider cyberspace and internet as the same thing. However, in a LinkedIn forum, an expert in the field told me that internet makes up at most 10% of cyberspace. To give you an idea of its diversity, the infrastructure of mobile phone companies and banks are cyberspace too.
Likely related to this diversity, cyberspace suffers from a simultaneous abundance and absence of definitions. In (academic) circles where efforts have been made to define it, many different meanings have been the result. In other (media) circles, cyberspace is often used without being defined. This “abundance-absence” problem is common among many other concepts, such as nationalism, terrorism and geopolitics.
Internet is notoriously difficult to define as well. In an article in La Nouvelle Révue Géopolitique, “Internet et la réinvention de la géographie”, Kavé Salamatian discusses four possible angles on internet. First, internet can be seen as all servers worldwide, which highlights the role of national boundaries in the functioning of internet. This interpretation, like the next one, attaches much value to the spatial features of internet and begs for inclusion of geography in any related research.
Second, internet could concern all physical lines of communication between different servers, or between servers and homes and offices. Submarine cables form a key part of this infrastructure, which raises questions about their status in international law. The cables further underline the importance of international security for internet, and the need for cross-border cooperation to protect the cables.
Third, internet can be considered as the processes that connect different autonomous networks with each other. These networks are managed by a wide variety of organisations such as companies, universities and internet providers. The quality and possibilities of these connections depend on among other things commercial and strategic considerations of the networks involved.
Finally, internet could refer to all online applications that people use. Popular examples are Google, Facebook and Twitter. This angle on internet reflects its essential role in social, political and economic developments.
Based on these views of internet, Professor Salamatian argues that research into cyberspace requires a multidisciplinary approach. He further advises geographers to reinvent their way of thinking to better understand this new kind of space. Geopolitical scholars should take note here as well.
Despite the enormous rise of the internet, cybergeopolitics remains a rather little used term. In May 2013, the term yields only 52 hits on Google. Things have since changed somewhat, with 3.800 hits for cybergeopolitics in October 2014. Remarkably, the hashtag #cybergeopolitics has been used only once so far on Twitter, by the author of this article.
However, more important than these numbers is the question which new rivalries between human groups can be linked to the emergence of this new space. How will these rivalries develop in the future? To what kind of violent conflicts could they lead? And most importantly, how can these rivalries be kept to a minimum?
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