The Internet has been awash with stories of the Internet falling apartthings are falling apart. Nations are demanding total control of the Internet in the name of “network sovereignty” — invoking the treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which ended a 30-year-old war in Europe.

As if that is not threatening enough, Internet giants and corporations such as Google, Facebook and Netflix — also known as Big Tech — are attenuating the Internet’s fragmentation by choosing to serve particular geographies/groups at the exclusion of others. This in effect undermines the spirit of the open Internet these tech giants were built on.

Also, Big Tech offerings are altogether blocked in countries such as China for reasons not limited to “national security” and protection of local innovation against foreign competition. Through the Golden Shield, otherwise known as the Great Firewall, China is able to filter, and censor the internet such that the internet within China is more or less an “intranet”.

We might know network sovereignty as a thing lobbied for by authoritarian states such as China and Russia, and slowly sweeping through young democracies in the global south. However, developed states such as France and New Zealand are taking similar stances that seek to put totalitarian control in their hands, further instituting stringent requirements on information flows.

Friends and foes: Governments and Big Tech

As Noam Chomsky argues, computers and the Internet were deeply embedded in the public sector for decades “before they were finally handed over to private enterprise for profit-making.” The emergence of state-corporate-bureaucratic machinery means that the lines between civic/political spaces and private-sector led entrepreneurialism are blurred.

At least the Snowden revelations (2013) showed that the U.S. was aggressively surveilling the Internet at such granular levels with the help of Big Tech. In effect, Google, Apple and Amazon played a major role in enabling U.S government’s aggressive foreign policy.

Now, it’s no longer just about U.S/Amazon vs China/Huawei. Smaller countries are also growing the capacity to control the Internet at foundational levels; by managing and regulating critical internet infrastructure such as internet gateways and by policing online content on popular platforms such as blogs and social networks through registration of bloggers and establishment of expensive licenses and taxes for online content creators.

The contestations between the governments and Big Tech, and key stakeholders such as academia, private sector, technical communities might have marked conversations on internet governance. The so-called “multi-stakeholder” model seeks to align the different visions for the internet towards a common goal acceptable by the parties involved.

However, the prevailing power imbalances and information asymmetries show that governments and Big Tech are possibly leading the charge.

Reframing the Montevideo Convention

The Montevideo Convention was effected in the Americas in 1933 to enable smaller states to gain independence from their European colonial masters. This convention came into effect not to only recognise boundaries — akin to territorial integrity and jurisdiction enforced by the Westphalia treaty — but also lent definition to what boundaries were and when they could be recognised, and how states could talk to each other. This convention set a framework for states to recognise each other.

For secessionist movements in Catalonia (Spain), Buganda (Uganda), Western Sahara (Morocco), among others, the Montevideo Convention is the ultimate make-or-break.

By reframing this Convention for the Information Age. We can get a speculative understanding of the future of the Internet, especially with a keener look at Big Tech. Notwithstanding, this reframing might apply to current nation-states to some extent.

Estonia is a good example of nation-state agnosticism (with caveats). It has a very competitive e-residency programme open to almost all citizens of the world. It affords e-residents privileges such as E.U banking and company incorporation among others.

There are no rules [of engagement] in the cyberspace.

Facebook as a corporate-nation-state

Companies such as Facebook are positioning themselves as nation-states, and almost as powerful as some of the G8. Facebook, just like her contemporaries in the Big Tech club, operates like a bureaucracy, very complex at the core with outposts all over the world. Some commentators have cheekily labelled Big Tech’s policy and corporate affairs office dotted all over the world as the new embassies and diplomatic missions of the information age.

Facebook ticks off a considerable number of conditions juxtaposed by the Montevideo Convention for the recognition of a sovereign state.

Currently, it has over 2,4 billion users (population) and well-functioning leadership board led by Mark Zuckerberg (government) and the ability to engage with different legal entities such as states and corporates. The only tick it does not meet is the definition of its (physical) boundaries.

However, the definition of (space) is more of a philosophical argument in this case. The dichotomy between the cyberspace and real (physical) space could as well be false given how much both spaces influence each other. In fact, the cyberspace’s flattened geographies expedite the movement of information and value. To use Estonia’s example, the cyberspace enables them to effectively administer their e-residency programme — and is the medium that enables the programme to exist in the first place.

What makes a corporate-nation-state?

Science fiction writers have written about the dystopian futures of entities amassing such power in capitalistic enterprises that people become tethered to these corporations and governments are relegated to the footnotes of history. But history perhaps is more believable. It has rich examples of powerful corporations which controlled trade all over the world and paved ways for establishment of new empires and systems of control.

Some commentators have cheekily labelled Big Tech’s policy and corporate affairs office dotted all over the world as the new embassies and diplomatic missions of the information age.

Today, corporations such as Facebook own large swathes of data about their users including identification, behavioural, psychosocial data. They also have mastered the art of crafting products to fit into major aspects of their users’ lives — as long there is promise of further “data-fication” and extraction of value.

Data could be equated to the tools that fostered the hegemonies of yesteryears — it can be fashioned into anything; especially into weapons of mind control and manipulation.

Excursions by Big Tech into global finance through private blockchains and cryptocurrencies shows how close we’re to the establishment of new tech mediated nation-states. This is the final frontier towards establishing a new vision of the Internet.

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