“The struggle against our own weaknesses (…) regardless of any difficulties created by our enemy, the struggle against ourselves is the hardest, both now and in the future of our people” – Amilcar Cabral, La Habana, 1966.
The Internet and cyberspace have, in just 25 years, become a new strategic frontier for competition among powers and over the generation of wealth. In the geopolitical arena, this thirst for power is becoming more intense in today’s context of global reconfiguration. At a much swifter pace than regional blocs, many states are seeking to consolidate their security and expand their power bases. To understand this, it is useful to remember John Mearsheimer’s concept of offensive realism in international relations: increased anarchy on the international stage breeds more concern among large states over security and a more heated race for hegemony and power. While there are indeed hegemonic powers, and globalization has generated an unprecedented concentration of wealth (facilitated, among other factors, by the information revolution), the fact remains that the global stage is still a profoundly interdependent and anarchic one, lacking any supranational power capable of setting new rules of the game. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman nicely sums up this stage as follows: “There is local politics without power and global power without politics.”
The current concern for restoring security and power is spreading in contradictory and often brutal fashion over a backdrop of dispersed global power and an unbridled – and since the 2008 financial crisis, more entrenched – post-Cold War market. After three centuries, the return of Asia to the center of geopolitics is also a key factor in this context. These shifts in the background cannot be separated from the disputes surrounding the Internet. The presence of Asia, for instance, is clearly reflected in the current cyberindustrial powers1 (in order of power): the US, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Israel, followed by India, then further behind, Russia, the European Union and Japan. The US – current hegemonic power of the eighth continent2 – made a strategic decision in the 2000s to go from managing sovereign technologies to seeking control and world supremacy over these technologies. Edward Snowden opened the first window onto this reality.
Along similar lines, the UN held the first strategic “global commons” summit in 2010, naturally including the Internet and digital space; at the same time, national cyberstrategic doctrine continues to emerge around the globe. In South America, MERCOSUR and UNASUR formally created working forums on the issue of cybersecurity. On the economic front, the concentration, multiplication and transfer of wealth via a new network-based modality has made the Internet the number one growth and productivity vector in advanced economies. Of the top ten companies in the world (mainly oil companies ten years ago), six are now from the new IT sector. One of them is Chinese.
This overview of examples illustrates how the Internet has gone from being a liberating, innovative structure to a theater of conflict and geopolitical challenge, where traditional stakeholders – not only the big ones – assert their sovereign will and imperial claims. If we look historically at the stages of emergence of the first global commons, such as the high seas and atmospheric space, rivalry among powers was expressed fundamentally through conflict and the will to expand their power in these arenas, slowing paving the way to international regulations and sanctions. The same path seems to be prevailing for the Internet. However, the modes of confrontation, of occupation of territory and the density of stakeholders make it very different from the global commons we just mentioned. It is, therefore, essential that the framework of analysis be brought up to speed in terms of how digital networks alter or cause “short circuits” in the architecture of power, particularly in terms of sovereignty and dependence.
As a binding force and transnational venue of exchange, the Internet is by definition a creator of interdependence and a disrupter of the fragmented mosaic of national sovereignties. Indeed, traditional sovereignty, understood as the management of collective destiny and territory by the State and its people, is today juxtaposed with the counter-effect of extraterritorial dependence, which operates a sort of barter exchange of sovereignties for guarantees of protection or integration in the globalization game. This double mechanism is apparent, for instance, in international financial institutions when they base loan conditions on a structural adjustment, which often leads to a relinquishment of political sovereignty. Something similar and more subtle also occurs in the international monetary system, pegged to the US dollar under the Bretton Woods agreement. This means subsidizing an international exchange currency to the benefit of one power, a centralizing force of monetary function that sucks up the financial capacity of numerous developing countries along the way.
But an even more advanced form of this transfer of sovereignty happens on the cyberstage, due to its virtual, decentralized and multidimensional nature. In the architecture of the Internet’s “layers”, the cognitive riches of the connected masses coexist intimately and virtuously alongside a structural logic of transfers of sovereignty and resources that occur on barely perceptible or imperceptible levels for web users. On a cognitive level, users’ freedom and information capacity is strengthened thanks to the web. On another, i.e. the data, code and infrastructure level, individual and collective habits enable a monetization of digital data, monopolization of infrastructures and information services, thus feeding a profound asymmetry of informational capacities, of control and massive surveillance to the benefit of the digital powers-that-be.
These dual and completely overlapping realities coexist and dominate cyberspace today, with no need for coercion, nor a system of measurement or regulation to put the brakes on the programmed transfer of digital sovereignties (and strategic capacities). To call things by their name, as Rosa Luxemburg would: we are dealing with a sort of neo-feudalism, or new imperialism of interpenetration applied to the information sphere, whose monopolistic effects are exponentially increased due to the nature of the web. In its organizational aspect, this phenomenon cannot be separated from the organic association between industrial States and their extraterritorial expansion via transnational enterprises. In this period of intensification of geopolitical rivalries, the priority is clearly placed on increasing their power, regardless of human rights or other social concerns. These last aspects also explain the rapid ascension of Asia and China in cyberspace.
In this framework, the word sovereignty takes on perhaps greater meaning in the contention for an Internet that serves both a regional political agenda and the public interest. What does recovering or building sovereignty in the digital realm entail? First: updating our conceptual point of view and reframing the strategic depth of cyberspace covered in the political agenda. This qualitative leap of awareness has been thoroughly supported at the conference Diálogos por una Internet ciudadana held in Quito in September 2017. We have entered a new Internet era that has taken root in reality much faster than in our minds. Several Latin American governments have embarked upon valuable national educational and industrial policies, but have shown insufficient willingness to go deeper into this issue when it comes to regional integration (for instance, in the case of the UNASUR fiber optic ring). Obviously, this is a difficult undertaking that cannot be met with halfway commitments. For social movements and civil society, this means revising their efforts to confront a new horizon of struggle in comparison to previous battles, on this issue and other battlefronts.
Second: the situation requires the forging of a collective stakeholder capable of promoting an agenda of technological independence at all levels of the Internet, tying in human rights and breakaway components for a “post-capitalist” transition. The corporate-state arrangement that structures today’s cyberspace and the digital economy is not compatible with a human rights paradigm or with democratic access to resources. If the current political moment is not always favorable to alliances between governments, then one pillar to prioritize is the territories putting up resistance, as well as alliances with other social sectors (communicators, consumers, municipal and local governments, communities…). Awareness and stockpiling of experiences, of which there have been many on the continent, is a powerful engine in the pursuit to forge a collective stakeholder. With so much asymmetry, it is likely necessary to think small in order to be alternative. But the activity in motion right now on the web that is reconfiguring the world also shows how something small yet profound… can become something huge.