Collision between two engines, Bay of Quinte Ontario, 1892

Digital geopolitics — how our digital worlds collide with the real world

The past few years have seen the increasing collision of our digital worlds, namely the global social and sharing networks, with the real world. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, but also WeChat and Weibo have become areas of interest for governments, either to identify and crack down on dissent or ask for help to curtail their use by radicals such as ISIS/Daesh.

The digital worlds know no boundaries, even if the physical servers they depend on and the wired&wireless networks do. The geopolitical spillovers from the digital worlds into the physical world have been increasing in number and intensity.

Let’s consider the following facts and incidents:

  • in February 2008, Pakistan’s government wanted to restrict access to YouTube within its borders. A succession of missteps by Pakistan Telecom ended up causing YouTube to be blacked out for the entire world.
  • in 2009, the so-called Green Revolution in Iran was relayed by Iranians on the ground reporting on Twitter and uploading videos to YouTube.
  • in 2011, Syria was the first major conflict where, by a combination of danger and news budgets being cut, the local population mimicked what Iranians had done and started to report daily for the world to see.
  • in 2013, Edward Snowden started to reveal the extent of the NSA’s, along and its partner intelligence services, wiretapping of digital lives. One of these, the Tempora program “harvests of 21 million gigabytes per day” by way of the undersea cables that power the internet.
  • the as-yet unresolved hacking of Sony in the fall of 2014, which I wrote about here is a conflagration of hacking and geopolitics the likes we’d never seen.
  • the brillant use by ISIS/Daesh of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to recruit young Westerners to their cause. French speakers should watch the linked report on the work of Dounia Bouzar.
  • ISIS/Daesh threatened the life of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in March 2015, as per ““You started this lost war,” a post from alleged ISIS supporters to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says. The threat, written in Arabic, had Dorsey’s image superimposed in crosshairs of a gun and called for jihadists around the world to target Twitter. “We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back,””
  • French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, responsible for the police&gendarmerie as well as the counterterrorism services made a very public trip to Silicon Valley in February 2015. Cazeneuve asked Twitter, Facebook and others for their help in countering radical jihadism which uses their networks to proselytize and recruit.

The death threat against Jack Dorsey by ISIS/Daesh is serious and worrying. We surely live in a new world whereby such threats can be made over what is essentially a digital ID ie the most intangible of assets. Yet the asymmetrical nature of warfare in the 21st century will make these skirmishes more frequent and more serious. The last incident is also of particular interest. The man tasked with policing France and as such in preventing the spread of terrorism basically admits that he cannot do his job if social networks headquartered in Silicon Valley, 8,500 km away, don’t help.

This trip says a lot about the state of the world and its interconnectedness, a point I made in my January article titled “Top 6 reasons a pragmatic pessimist (me) is an optimistic realist for 2015–2016". In my opinion, one of the ugly or not so ugly truths of the 21st century is that there is no master plan, no overarching entity giving the world its cadence, the world as we know it is rudderless.

In my mind, this is actually a good thing because it implies that everyone has the opportunity and their place to make it a better world. Silicon Valley, though quite multicultural by essence, is not known to be very well versed in geopolitics. Post the Paris attacks in January Mark Zuckerberg penned a Facebook note where he took a strong stance for free speech. Business being business, it did not take long to be moot. Given the waning of Nation-State model, the increase of asymmetrical warfare both in the physical and the digital worlds, the masters of these digital worlds will be called upon to act beyond the interests of their users or shareholders.

The question remains: will they be up to the task ?

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