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Can This Be Home? Borderlessness & The Internet Citizen

The Malecón, Havana, Cuba. Image by Flickr user Patxi64 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

The Malecón, Havana, Cuba. Image by Flickr user Patxi64 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

I once interviewed a Cuban blogger who described the Internet as a place where Cubans (the few who were online) could experience a form of citizenship—an active, participatory democratic experience—that they couldn't have in real life. As she put it, “we are learning to be citizens in cyberspace.” Although her focus was on the particular limitations on public expression and debate in Cuba, I took her point broadly, thinking of my Internet activist colleagues who often describe themselves as being citizens or residents “of the Internet.”

As online movements have grown in scope and impact, many of us have developed a do-it-yourself, participatory sense of citizenship that is more strongly tied to a global collective than to a transactional agreement with a particular nation state. We have not only fought hard to uphold some policies and strike down others, but we've actually started to develop international standards for the exercise and protection of rights online. Countries, borders, and nationalities remain dominant and important in many ways, but they do not feel as sharply defined or as binding as before.

These two paradigms, the traditional world of nation-states and the new one of fluid borders and internauts, had a nasty collision this June, when leaked NSA documents revealed that the US government was spying on a sizable chunk of the global population. It's easy to assume that this might have happened no matter what, but the particular terms that governed the lawless, unchecked surveillance regime of the NSA cut right at the heart of this question of borders and “Internet citizenship”.

We now know that NSA spying practices hinge on an arbitrary measure of “foreignness”. Predicated on the faulty assumption that terrorists are usually foreign, authorities decided to track the communications of foreigners at large, rather than limiting their investigations to people who were actually associated with terrorist organizations.

If analysts could prove that an individual was foreign or at least bore a “51% likelihood of foreignness,” a measure based on how often they communicated with individuals outside of the country, they could spy on this person as they pleased. After all, under US law, the government is not obligated to guarantee constitutional protections to people who don't live in the US.

Many advocates in the US since have focused on defending the rights of US people before this practice—over half the population of the US was deemed foreign by this standard. But the NSA's hare-brained “foreignness” measurement scheme proves that online, it is all but impossible to prioritize the rights of one group (in this case, “US people”) over those of another.

The results of this policy also prove something about the porousness of our borders. While most of us belong to at least one state, we connect to people in many countries through our daily communications and lives online. Borders are a fluid thing.

In the offline world, we accept the fact that laws and our rights vary from country to country. But online, where both social norms and technical realities have led to a more fluid reality, this is not so easy to swallow. If we continue to protect only the rights of certain people based on citizenship or some other crude measure, we will lose. We must see the borderlessness that technology has afforded us not just as a beautiful concept, but as a practical reality. The Internet is a place where we actually could try to protect everyone’s rights, equally.

In the face of these challenges, rights advocates around the world are working to assert and uphold universal human rights, a concept of which US leaders (clearly not thinking ahead) were original proponents. Arguably, there’s never been a better time to actually put this concept into action. We have at our disposal a medium that is not entirely universal, but comes closer to being so than anything else we've ever had. The Internet not only enables us to imagine this universality on a real scale — it also empowers us to do something about it.

Ellery Roberts Biddle is the editor of Global Voices Advocacy and a long-time member of the Global Voices community. She lives in San Francisco where she devotes most of her time to thinking and writing about free expression and privacy online and the politics of Internet use in Cuba. She blogs at half-wired. Follow her on Twitter at ellerybiddle.

  • Marten

    I don”t think we have to accept a borderless world. I like to be governed by laws where I democratically co-decide or my representatives, not an internationalist noosphere run by the internet companies. What may be an advantage for dictatorships is a death-kneal for working democracies. We have to ensure that democratic nations remain in control of their slice of the internet.

    • http://snakehorse.wordpress.com/ Zoe Dune

      Your assumption might be that everyone is cattle. Well, that might very well have been the case before the internet improved but now we’re able to be more precise in our findings and therefore a ‘borderless’ world is more realistic. Since you’ve clearly decided to be against it, you’ll find that you’ll be left behind. Fortunately there won’t be enough of you to prevent us from progressing as humans.

      • Marten

        I understand that people are against the idea of borders and the nation state but the reality is that the “borderless internet” is where the NSA reads your mails, either because they get legal access under their jurisdiction to your cloud data hosted on american soil or because they don’t rerspect the laws of other nations and take the freedom to invade them virtually on grounds of the barrel of a gun. The stateless world is also a world without democracy, that is rule of the people, where we become the unrooted cattle of the megacorporations.

        • http://snakehorse.wordpress.com/ Zoe Dune

          Yes it’s true that we’re fish in a barrel when we freely cross borders through the internet where big brother/big data see everything. As you said one way or another they’re gonna get to us no matter what. So borders or not it doesn’t matter, but I’m not nor is anyone else going to not realize that democracy needs to be maintained. We’re learning this the hard way and we’re evolving to keep up because of the lack of borders, those who don’t will also be left behind. The future is bright but also very dark and uncertain.

          • Marten

            Interesting.

            “Many advocates in the US since have focused on defending the rights of US people before this practice—over half the population of the US was deemed foreign by this standard”

            If the US democratically decide to surveille their own citizens and on their own territory, I am fine with that, that is their decision. But if they surveille non-citizens and beyond their jurisdiction that is the real scandal. Apparently not under US constitutional rule and US citizens think it is fine to piss in the garden as long as it is not their own. Quite the opposite.

          • http://snakehorse.wordpress.com/ Zoe Dune

            Let’s also consider the fact that citizens are taking notice that exceptionality and nationalism as too extreme. Those are ideals of a secular past which fades quickly with every fact check and revelation. Here in Texas, we’re ground zero for the conservative agenda. Volatile climate.

          • Marten

            Exceptionalism is a notion of a narcisstic personality disorder. What a strange Herrennation attitude that makes the US an intellectual laughing stock. What I mean is governance by the people, for the people. Here the issue with the US seems to be that governance wise it grew too large, the nation would need 5 middle government between states and federal level for regions. I would say that the religion of the nation and exception are substitutes.

          • http://snakehorse.wordpress.com/ Zoe Dune

            Yes a democracy, but we’re a democracy within a republic. Liberal Conservatives are seen as too extreme to get majority support and more toward the center conservatives are busy with super pacs and redistricting to keep voters guessing. In the meantime, globalization and center to left ideologies are getting more support which will eventually get rid of exceptionalism.

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