Why we need pirates in cyberspace

Whenever governments have tried to regulate new common areas – from oceans to airwaves – pirates have moved in. They remind us that some areas should be free. 

Janos Marjai/MTI/AP/File
In this February 2012 photo, protestors wearing Guy Fawks masks hold the logos of the international hacker group Anonymous during a demonstration against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, ACTA, in Budapest, Hungary. The shadowy world of Internet hackers and pranksters is emerging as an important counter to government attempts to regulate cyberspace.

 Russia and China recently submitted a proposal to renew the regulation of the Internet at the World Conference on International Communications (WCIT).

In a nutshell, the two countries suggested bringing the Internet under the control of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union. By proposing multinational control over the Internet, including over its numbering and naming system, China and Russia upset a few governments, especially the Obama administration. Why?

First, because the numbering and naming system is currently supervised by ICANN, a non-profit organization closely tied to the US government. And second, because the United States is the home of the most powerful private players that shape the norms of cyberspace – while conducting a very profitable business (think of Google, Twitter, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, and Amazon). Quite understandably, the US would rather let these friendly corporations run their businesses without the interference of foreign powers.

If we consider cyberspace a common good for humankind, providing equal power and voting rights to all sovereign states represented at the United Nations seems appealing at first sight. But think about the implications: the US, one vote; Saudi Arabia, one vote; Iran, one vote; Zimbabwe, one vote. As it turns out, a large proportion of UN member states are undemocratic or outright dictatorial. So it may not be not such a good idea to let the UN regulate cyberspace.

But does that mean that the US-friendly ICANN and a group of US-friendly corporations will remain the primary de facto gatekeepers of cyberspace? There is little reason to believe that China will let that happen.

The geopolitical struggle for the control of cyberspace parallels the conflicts that took place in the 17th century on the high seas and in the early 20th century on the airwaves. In the former case, sovereign states created monopolies called Indies companies to appropriate and rule over the high seas. Organizations of pirates fought against them for decades, defending the freedom of the waters – a principle finally recognized by everyone in the 19th and 20th century.

In the latter case, many governments declared the airwaves sovereign territory to gain full control of radio broadcasting. The British crown granted monopoly rights to the BBC in the 1920s, and it was not until 1967, after years of protest orchestrated by pirate radio stations, that the airwaves were freed of censorship and centralized state control. On both the high seas and the airwaves, the public cause defended by pirate organizations ended up defeating the state-supported monopolies.

Will history repeat itself in cyberspace? Pirate insurrection is on the rise, headed by organizations such as Wikileaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec. Cyberspace is, by design, an unbounded territory, and it would make little sense to fragment it by building sovereign fences all over the place. Pirate organizations, throughout history, have been there to remind us that some territories are simply not made to be appropriated or centrally controlled.

Much like sea pirates and pirate radio DJs, cyber-pirates are demanding freedom, openness, and decentralized control. If the main powers are too busy fighting each other to take these demands into account, cyber-activism will grow stronger.

Iran wants to build a national intranet to facilitate state censorship? Cyberpirates will retaliate, just like a pirate group called “Legions of the Underground” did in the early 1990s after the Chinese government began to censor China’s cyberspace using a digital firewall.

Clearly, the regulation of cyberspace will require some degree of political coordination at the supranational level. However, the current nation-state system severely constrains the creation of public goods on behalf of all humankind (and not just on behalf of a particular nation).

The current design of the United Nations precludes a fair regulation of cyberspace at a supranational level (unless we want dictatorships to lead the pack). In the short term, recognizing the legitimacy of the public cause defended by pirate organizations and giving them representation and a voice at international summits and conferences such as the WCIT could be a first step in preventing a global cyber-insurrection.

Many agree that cyber-activists who defend Net neutrality and openness in cyberspace have become the true voice of “We, the Netizens” – maybe more than any democracy represented at the UN. There are now over 2 billion Netizens connected to cyberspace, and many feel politically under-represented. And yet they have legions of good ideas and reasonable demands.

Jean-Philippe Vergne, assistant professor at the Ivey School of Business (Canada), is coauthor of “The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism.” More info at www.pirateorganization.com and on the authors’ Twitter account @PirateOrg.

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