Creating a republic of cyberspace
Many people in Asia spend a good part of their day in a territory that is not their own country, but rather in the constantly expanding realm called cyberspace. Although they access it at the local level through computers and smartphones, they are sharing this territory with a community that stretches across Asia, and the world.
The modern world began in the 17th century when Spain, Portugal, England and other nations in Europe started to explore and to exploit the resources of the Americas, Africa and Asia. The global networks for production and distribution that they formed then gave those nations an absolute advantage and also served as a blueprint for the global manufacturing and distribution system we use today. But we have reached the limits of the physical Earth. We cannot exploit natural resources as we did before without grave consequences for the environment. And, as the population approaches 9 billion, we will have to scramble in the future just to assure access to food and water.
But cyberspace offers us a new frontier for expansion, exploration and self-realization, a territory that is in its earliest stages and that cries out to us to define and systematize it. The virtual space being generated on the Internet can store a near infinite amount of information and it offers links to sources of information on the Internet, and intranet networks, that greatly expand the potential of any individual.
Moreover, increases in the capacity of technology over the next few years will make cyberspace a place that can be inhabited literally. Already our children are navigating buildings, scaling mountains and flying airplanes that exist solely in that shared cyberspace. That space they are exploring is the stone age of cyberspace. The growing community of people with similar interests and concerns from around the world online are making cyberspace the most valuable real estate around. How the creative class in cyberspace collaborates to establish new systems and services may be the determining factor for the future of our economy.
And yet there is limited coordination concerning policy for the future of cyberspace. There is tremendous potential for collaboration. Yet the hacking of websites and servers, combined with massive theft of information, has proven to be a growing security problem which may threaten to undermine the one space left for revolutionary innovation.
As cyberterrorism, such as the recent Sony Pictures hack, continues to expand, we must recognize that we need to establish global standards for the administration of cyberspace closer to how we administer jointly shared territory like Antarctica - or perhaps rule of a new form unprecedented in human history. To the degree that we are able to lay down rules for cyberspace to support citizens in their efforts to create new institutions and products, we will be able to realize the full potential of this frontier.
East Asia is the most wired part of the world with the largest population of highly educated people who produce content for the Internet. Could the nations of East Asia come together to establish a “republic of cyberspace,” a set of new rules that anticipates the expansion of the Internet’s functionality, and set down rules concerning transparency, privacy, information sharing and network neutrality? Such a prescient agreement could make this region the most attractive place for business and research. Korea, as a model for both IT and governance, could play the central role in that process.
One way to create a republic of cyberspace in East Asia is to revisit the precedent of the six-party talks. The six-party talks served as an invaluable forum run by South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia to discuss engagement with North Korea and seek a permanent solution to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The talks have been dormant since 2009, but the concept of an ongoing high-level dialogue between the major players in East Asia could be expanded and transformed by its application to the question of cyberspace in East Asia.
We cannot build a stable cyberspace unless we include all the players at the table. An honest negotiation between these five countries, supplemented by joint research between the experts of each country, could be the source for a comprehensive and original blueprint for the co-administration of cyberspace as a “global commons” for the region. And such an agreement on cyberspace could serve as a model for the world. We desperately need a positive vision for cyberspace that will move us beyond our current reactive posture wherein we respond to threats, rather than imagining an improved system.
Finally, such six-party talks for a republic of cyberspace might also extend to a profound rethinking of the nature of intelligence in the 21st century. Intelligence as a field developed as a means to obtain information through clandestine means during wartime, thus playing a supporting role to the military. But in this new information world, we are facing unprecedented challenges that require us to reinvent the wheel in order to assure a neutral cyberspace. We need to agree on the contours for the complex systems that preserve and safeguard information in conformity with principles that are transparent and consistent. Building intelligence organizations that will have the integrity and the vision to play that vital role will be a major challenge for our age.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
by Emanuel Pastreich