To Tame the Digital Frontier

Woon (Anthony) Cho is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

Due to the generous support of the American Austrian Foundation; the Diplomatic Academy, Vienna; and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, scholars from all over the world gathered in Vienna for the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Between schnitzels and Stephansplatz, the seminar theme, Foreign Policies of the Internet in a Time of Surveillance and Disclosure, took center stage. Though we were physically in Vienna, our discussions passed through various sectors and around the world ranging from national cybersecurity threats, China’s growth in internet search, and the way that the internet is changing Africa as we know it. Personally, I am interested in foreign policy and cyberspace; my research examines the cyber-offensive of North Korea. However, I realized that in order to keep up with the breadth and scope of the seminar, I had to take a step back and zoom out from my academic microcosm. From afar, all the wires, devices, and users formed a hazy picture. As the dust settled from our passionate discussions, this picture became clearer.

We now understand WWW to mean World Wide Web. About a century ago, it meant something completely different: the Wild Wild West. The taming of the American frontier encapsulates many of the issues that the internet faces today. Historically, the movement westward represented a new opportunity for many people. They left the urbanizing East for an alternative lifestyle earned through their own sweat and tears. The West was more than a place–it was an ideal. However, beneath the rhetoric, westward expansion was largely profit-driven. Major corporations and governments subsidized and encouraged western migration to fill a market need, whether it was for furs and food, gold, or oil. Because of its profit-driven nature, abuse of power was also quite common. Not only did the corporations and governments control the westward movement, the profiteers that turned west and entrenched themselves became the de facto authorities. Law enforcement and formal governance were geographically distant and behind the times. As new power structures were formed in the absence of a clearly defined civil-legal space, more and more abuses followed such as the birth of American opium dens. How then, did justice come to the West? Enter the vigilante cowboy heroes like Wyatt Earp: a hero for the common man. Chaos was the only law in the West and those who sought justice had to find it themselves.

Now, replace the western plains with the cyber-plane and we have a digital frontier on our hands. As I will argue below, the internet is also profit-driven, characterized by abuses of power and efforts at vigilante justice for the common man.

The internet is revolutionary. With more and more people and things connecting to the web, the internet is bringing about whole scale societal change. It has been so beneficial to society that significant parts of the UN consider access to the internet to be a human right. In education, open source course materials have made tertiary education material available for anyone with a connection. In commerce, data can be shared between firms and their clients with unprecedented ease. The entertainment factor of the internet hardly requires explanation. According to a 2014 Pew research study, 90% of internet users said that the internet has been good for them personally, and 76% of internet users say the internet is good for society as a whole. Unequivocally, the internet has changed the way we live. Much like the West, the internet is not only a place, but also an ideal. An ideal we all seem to embrace.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the majority of the internet is profit driven. Both Google and Facebook, the two most trafficked websites on the internet, are private for-profit firms, with a market cap worth of $233 billion and $58 billion respectively. In China, Baidu and Alibaba are also experiencing unprecedented profits, with Baidu CEO Robin Li now worth over $12 billion and Alibaba soon to make one of the largest Wall Street IPO debuts in history. Even in the altruistic realm of education, for profit degree mills have latched on to open source education. The Apollo Group, which runs 4 online, for-profit universities, is worth $3.6 billion. In comparison, my own school (Tufts University) has an endowment of $2 billion. Not only are these web platforms generating a tidy sum; they are also investing in their vision for the future of the internet. The companies that control our connectivity—the telecom and cable companies—have also generated profits in excess of hundreds of billions of dollars. Just as westward migration was shaped by the pursuit of money and profits, so too is our journey to and on the net.

These major companies are taking steps to ensure that their profits and revenues increase. Indeed, we must ask if we could call them good free-market companies if they did not seek to enhance their competitive advantage. Unfortunately, this competitive advantage is currently costing consumers their privacy and intellectual property rights. Smaller corporations have not been spared, as acquisitions and patent wars abound. Two major issues regarding public power dynamics seem to be:

  1. The failure of multistakeholder governance, and
  2. Citizen surveillance.

The myth of multistakeholder governance was a big topic at the Milton Wolf Seminar. There seemed to be a consensus that multistakeholder internet governance is failing because internet “stakeholders” do not accurately represent internet users. Those participating under the umbrella of multistakeholder governance do not reflect the public interest, and therefore have no civil accountability. The current system of internet governance is shaped by systemic abuses of power by governments and corporations seeking to further their own interests. The Edward Snowden leaks were perhaps the most discussed example of these power dynamics. Government surveillance is not only an issue in the United States, but also notably in China and Russia. There have also been cases of corporate surveillance, and governments and watchdogs have accused Google of having a monopoly on consumer data all across the world. In accusations and counter-accusations, the fight between Google and the NSA is at a stage where the common user is not involved; they are bystanders. These examples of corporate and government surveillance represent an inherent abuse of citizen data and the pursuit of financial or strategic gains.

With seemingly no one on the side of public good, private individuals and organizations have risen up against these perceived injustices. Echoing the vigilante heroes of American Westerns, online watchdog communities and active technocrats have mobilized for the public good. Even bigger companies such as Netflix and Amazon have also joined the cause. Aside from the high profile cases of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, vigilante groups have grown in number and force. Opposing financial injustices and regulations, the hacker collective Anonymous mobilized Operation Payback to make their presence known to financial elites. Even in China, the netizen population is fighting corruption to a certain degree of effectiveness. Dispensing cyber vigilante justice is a common theme in countries around the world. Unfortunately, these movements alone have not galvanized major changes to the status quo. In fact, many corporations have started to push back. However, what is important here is that there is a widely held desire for justice, order, and civil governance on the internet. Though these vigilantes may be heroes to the common user, they cannot effect change themselves. The actual establishment of representative and accountable justice, order, and civil governance on the internet is needed.

If this comparative diagnosis of the Wild Wild West to the World Wide Web is to be effective, there must be a common prescription, a common solution that can be gleaned from this comparison. To that end, it is important to analyze how the West was won and if any comparable methods exist for winning the web.

There are many claims to how the West was tamed. I believe the most transformative revolution was in the deployment of transit and communication systems—think the Pony Express and the transcontinental railways. More critically, the accessibility, reliability, and speed of transit and communication brought governance and accountability westwards. People and information moved quicker and there was no longer a sharp divide between the East and the West. With an increased flow of people and information, civil governance in the West increased, supported by a more mobile enforcement structure based in Washington D.C. So, what can improve the accessibility, reliability, and speed of the internet and how can it improve civil governance? The following are my suggestions:

Accessibility – Connecting more users to the internet

By decreasing the cost of connectivity, the number of internet users will increase. In turn, more users will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of responsible stakeholders. I believe that the internet is still missing a critical mass of users, especially residents of the global south, who can and should be incorporated into and represented within systems of internet governance. By increasing the overall number of users, especially among older and disenfranchised populations, the number of stakeholders will rise. The issue of law and order in the internet will come to the forefront of societal discussions in a non-sensationalized manner if a broader base of people is invested in the internet.

Reliability – Ensuring connectivity for users

By increasing the number of stakeholders online, the number of services and service providers can increase. Opening up to international competition can be helpful in regulating domestic monopolies as well. There is a reason why many countries have their own version of Facebook and Google. Moreover, considering the right to connect as an international human right may give people confidence to see the internet as more than a strictly informational and commercial space. By increasing the appeal of the internet and its reliability as a medium, a broader base of stakeholders can be achieved.

Speed – Deregulate bandwidth restrictions for users and corporations

Expanding consumer access to reliable and affordable broadband connections allows users to connect more often and to participate in a broader array of online activities. This is also a neutral technological goal that is based on collaborations between the government, the private sector, and individuals. Having a common goal in sight can foster teamwork. Also, internet service provider (ISP) meters and artificial limitations on data, especially abroad, should be eliminated. Citizens cannot become stakeholders if they are limited to 200 megabytes a month. This can help create an international standard for internet usage and subject ISPs to globalized competition as now a select few companies dominate a domestic market.

In conclusion, increasing users (and thereby stakeholders) via increased and more reliable connectivity holds the potential to improve internet governance. In a sense, the Wild Wild West both suggests reasons for hope and a cautionary tale for our digital frontier. Even after the American frontier was tamed, huge problems—including monopolies over natural resources like oil and poor quality of life—remained. However, expanding governance institutions to the West was no small achievement. It made the West a safer and more prosperous environment for settlers. Likewise, this analytical framework only sheds light on the current issues at hand. The issues of the future will be different and our solutions must adapt accordingly. This macro-level view of the web serves as a jumping off point for further academic research. Now, back in my microcosm, I can connect the dots that were outside of my vision before. At the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar, everything is connected if you look at the broader picture: Don’t only consider what you can see.


Anthony (Woon) Cho is a M.A. student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on international negotiation and conflict resolution in the East Asia region and currently serves as a staff editor for The Fletcher Forum. His academic interests include public and private security, cyberspace relations, and U.S.-East Asia Relations. His recent research analyzed the cyber-attack strategies of North Korea and its implications for future negotiations. Prior to coming to The Fletcher School, Anthony received a Fulbright Grant to South Korea where he stayed for two years. He received his B.A. in International Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.


Leave a Reply