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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ungoverned Spaces

The great thing about having a good home library is that when your children get old enough to ask intelligent questions, you can grab a book off the shelves and say, "Read this and we'll talk about it when you've finished it."

One such book that I handed over to the younger Frenchling is one I picked up at the McGill book shop in Montreal when I was visiting the elder Frenchling.  It's called Ungoverned Spaces:  Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty and it's a set of essays about international security, failed states, immigration and the internet.

In the introduction one of the editors takes exception to the term itself.  When we say "ungoverned space" we are speaking from a state-centric perspective.  The implication is that just because a state cannot exercise effective sovereignty in a particular area, that there is no system of governance or authority at all.  We think that such areas must be danger or threatening and there are calls for someone, anyone, to get in there and straighten things out.
Many assume that alternative governance structures inherently undermine state power.  They assume that increased state capacity, state building, and in some cases, state creation are the cure to the security problems stemming from ungoverned spaces.  Yet, more often than not, prescriptions are based on an anachronistic image of the state as the mid-twentieth-century welfare state, or on the privatizing, outsourcing state of the late twentieth century.  In both cases, the state is assumed to be the critical actor in providing governance and generating authority.
We can argue about whether or not this era is different from others and if the sovereignty of states is softer than it was in the past.  James C. Scott talks about an area in southeast Asia he calls Zomia which he believes has been a refuge for people fleeing state control for hundreds of years.  Academics argue over whether or not Zomia ever existed but clearly states have always had limits to their power whether we are talking about a monarchy, a dictatorship or a democratic nation-state.   I think the state has always struggled to either extend sovereignty to spaces it cares about (sometimes it chooses not to) or to maintain the sovereignty is already has in the areas under its control lest it lose ground.  Are these tasks harder now than they were in the past?  That is something we could debate for years and still not come up a definitive answer.

What are some of the areas the authors of the essays in this book think are particularly pertinent in the early 21st century:

International security:  This is a top priority for many nation-states.  One of the odd facts about the post-911 world is that even though many countries disagreed with the US decision to invade Iraq, most were very willing to cooperate with the US in other areas related to security.  As world leaders and their people were publicly shouting at each other and exchanging insults, on another level far from the public eye, they were getting along just fine and they put together some very interesting "working together" arrangements.

In the essay "Here be Dragons,"  Phil Williams argues that "the major security challenges of the twenty-first century can be understood in terms of spaces and gaps:  geographical, functional, social, economic, legal and regulatory."

In a state-centric world "space" there are assumptions that underly the term.  "Spaces" can be controlled and filled with something:  people, economic activity, laws, rules and the like.  In that process of extending sovereignty there will be gaps or missed areas.  There will also be conflict which can be between other states or with the people who already occupy that area and may have their own local authority that they prefer over the state.  These spaces can be outside the national territory or well within its borders.  Williams mentions car burning in the Paris suburbs.  I have only to walk up the street to find one right here in Versailles - a homeless person who has occupied a bus stop and has been there at least five years.  Another good example is flying over North America.  What do I see?  Vast areas with no roads, a few people here and there, and little towns scattered here and there.  You cannot tell me that the states here exercise total effective sovereignty over those spaces.   In some cases they don't even try.  It would take too much effort for little or no gain.

Does that mean that there is no authority at all in these places?  No, it just means that other forms of authority take root.  Small rural towns have their own governance structures.  Where there are few people living in isolated areas they still work things out with the neighbors even if the property lines are hundreds of miles apart,.  In the case of the person occupying the bus stop, the neighborhood has taken a "live and let live" attitude.  No one seems particularly attached to that stop (there are many others), he's not doing any harm and I've never heard of any calls to get the police to remove him.

If people have a hard time recognizing alternative governance structures within their own national borders, no wonder that they don't see them in spaces outside them.  Williams talks about Afghanistan and other places where tribes and clans have more authority and legitimacy than the national government.  In fact, sometimes these groups don't really correspond to national borders and span several states.  State-building is a real challenge under those circumstances.  The question of whether or not it's really necessary is an open one.  Intervention by other states is justified under many grounds:  humanitarian, in the name of international human rights, and predation and conflict that impacts other states.   But how often is this feasible?   It's costly (just ask the American people about this) and sometimes it just plain doesn't work.  Last I looked Afghanistan still doesn't have a strong state despite all the efforts of the international community to build one.   I think Williams is very wise when he says:
In the final analysis, therefore, perhaps the best outcome is for alternative forms of governance to evolve in ways that enhance the protection and security they provide while reducing their predatory characteristics.  If this happens, then state decline might be less of a threat and more of a blessing as people once again embrace forms of governance that are bottom-up rather than top-down, that are organic and local rather than imposed and distant and that reflect indigenous impulses rather than alien domination.
The Internet:  My Frenchlings look at me strangely when I tell them that I remember a world with no Google, no email, no websites.  Most people today are happy to have these things and the good they do probably outweighs the bad.  However, from time to time people get uneasy about the fact that nobody seems to be in charge of the Net and there is no obvious governing structure.

In the essay "Under Cover of the Net"  Ronald Diebert and Rafal Rohozinski argue that calling the Internet an "ungoverned space" is a grave error.  It may not be controlled by one particular state but that doesn't mean that it is completely out of control and lacks a governance structure.
At the most basic level, it is governed by rules of physics as well as code, which give it predictability and finite characteristics.  It is governed by consensual practices among the network's providers and operators that have their basis in norms without which the Internet could not functions.  And most importantly, is it increasingly governed by actors - states and corporations primarily, but increasingly civic networks as well - who understand how leveraging and exploiting key nodes within the physical infrastructure of the Internet can give them strategic political and economic advantages.
One example of this are the top-level domain name servers.  Think of them as traffic cops who answer question and steer traffic.  These are devices that must be physically located somewhere.  They used to be in the US but are now in other countries well.  The Net relies on boxes and wires that are not at all "virtual" and where they are makes a difference.  There are points of failure and points of control.  The Great Firewall of China is a perfect example.  The Chinese government can and does block traffic it doesn't like.  Ways exist to get around such things but they general require more technical expertise than the average person has.

As for anonymity on the Net, well, I don't want to scare anyone but it is possible to find you and that's been true for years.  I was once part of a virtual community in the 1990's and we had a rather troublesome "guest" and we got curious enough about him to want to track him down.  Since there were people in this forum with technical expertise, some took the time to exercise their skills.  I don't remember if we actually found him but we did narrow down to the area he lived in.  Some basic sleuthing would have done the rest.  Every device on the Net has an address.  The card in your home computer has one and it has a unique identifier called a MAC address.  When you go on out on the Net there is another address that is assigned to you called an IP address and it's way you can be found.  Nothing nefarious about any of this and it's not something the state dreamed up - all devices on a network have to have unique identifiers - that's just the way it works and I won't bore you with more technical details.

We could talk about other things as well like email snooping and other forms of surveillance but I think enough has been said to make the point.

Calls for more governance, more control, over the Internet come from many sources.  Parents don't like to see their children watching porn, governments don't like the free-wheeling natures of some of the discussion and the fact that there are tools like social media that can be used to undermine state authority.  There are arguments over ways to tax things purchased via the Internet, intellectual property rights and how to stop the publishing of information that people and governments would prefer to keep private.

Since there is no one authority that manages all aspects of the Net, people think there is no governance.  Some folks genuinely want someone to yell at when people use the Net in ways they don't like or think are destructive in some way.  To my knowledge that "someone" doesn't exist.  In its place are hundred, thousands, maybe millions of actors who have influence and must negotiate with each other to keep the Net running, but no one authority that can control and punish people who break the rules (such as they are).

The network is neutral.  People aren't.  This discussion is just beginning and it will get louder as more people come to rely on the Net and as more people find new and creative ways to use it.

In a second essay in this book by J.P. Singh, he explores some of these Internet governance activities that are going on right now.
Internet governance is the domain mostly of the California-based ICANN and the dispute settlement functions of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (URDP) of the World Intellectual Property Organization.  ICANN itself arose from a contest between an international coalition that favored most a civil society-led international governance mechanism and U.S.-backed private industry interests that feared, perhaps rightly so, that they would suffer from the loss of U.S. oversight.
There is another organization that Singh talks about that was created at about the same time as ICANN.  Its called The World Summit on the Information Society and was started by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  Their work goes way beyond the technical and it has become a place to discuss things like "spam, child pornography, data privacy, freedom of speech..."  They have influence - not only from developing nations but also from the EU who supported their attempt to put ICANN under the authority of the UN in 2005.  If you go to the ITU website today you will see that they are promoting WSIS Forum 2013 which started yesterday.  On the agenda are many technical talks but there are also discussions of legal, social and economic issues tied to the Internet.  The mix of actors is fascinating;  industry is there as well as countries (developed and developing ones), international organizations and NGO's.  Among the talks scheduled for today is this one:  Multi-Stakeholder approach to Governance of the Internet (ICANN).

There probably won't be one central authority to manage the Net anytime soon, if ever.  U.S. domination of the infrastructure is probably on its way out.  There will be more international forums where many actors can come together and and form a consensus around certain perceived problems.  There will be bitter fights as different people from different cultures struggle to create standards that everyone can live with.  "Free speech" is not a priority for everyone and not all think that the highest purpose of the Net is to promote economic activity.  Whatever structure arises from this will be a broad umbrella that works through negotiation and consensus.  It cannot be state-centric since the "space" to be managed is, in a sense, infinite and what parts of it are rooted in the physical world are becoming too dispersed geographically for any one state to exert effective sovereignty over it.  Something to watch.

This is a very thick slice of the book but there is a lot more.  I recommend Ungoverned Spaces to you along with James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed.  This evening I plan on starting David Graeber's Debt:  The first 5,000 Years and I should get to Possibilities or Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology later on this week.  I think I see another book list forming....

3 comments:

mariemags said...


This is an interesting and intelligent article Victoria.

One place that surveillance cannot penetrate is the intimate communication connection between God and man. It can perceive vague or in depth recorded accounts, but never in fullness of surveillance.

He tells me

'to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them." And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.'

The kingdom of Love is all that is required when passing in, out, through different lands. In Love we all belong everywhere. Love is our passport, our wealth, our heritage, our future, our home and our eternity x

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you for visiting the Flophouse, mariemags, and for the comment. Yes, this is one form of privileged communication that will never be interfered with.

And you're right that our faith travels well, is always with us and is a great comfort wherever we are. As I get older my anxieties fall away as I realize that I really can trust in the Lord. Wherever we go He's there and so are our fellow believers. There is community. In a globalized world there are two things that make me feel at home anywhere on the planet: fellow Christians and AA.
:-)

mariemags said...

:O) chortle chortle