In an Internetworked World No One Is a “Foreigner”

Posted on June 21, 2013


As everyone knows there have been some startling and shocking revelations concerning the surveillance activities of the USA’s NSA.  This has occasioned considerable to-ing and fro-ing from the US Executive Office, from the major Internet corporations implicated in these revelations, and from various elements of civil society.

To an equally astonishing and disturbing degree much of this to-ing and fro-ing has centred around whether the rights of Americans have been assaulted.  Watching these discussions unfold including from US colleagues in civil society, it has been interesting how a fine bright line has been drawn between the rights of citizens and residents of the USA and everyone else.  The argument appears to be that while the rights of Americans are somehow sacrosanct–protected by among other things the US constitution and duly constituted legislation, foreigners i.e. everyone else in the world have no rights–are “fair game” for whatever actions the NSA or whoever chooses to invoke.

As a non-USAian watching all of this unfold I’ve been equally astonished and horrified that otherwise perfectly sane and reasonable people who pop up in all the right places often saying useful things internationally could be so tone deaf when dealing with a real issue with global ramifications.

As I’ve been thinking about this I haven’t been quite sure why the terminology of Americans “good”–“foreigners” “suspicious” should grate so much.

We (being those of the non-USAian persuasion) are so used to listening to cultural messages coming from the US including via movies, television, music and so on that at some unconscious cultural level “we are all Americans now”.  So when the divide between those placing themselves under the shading protection of the US constitution and everyone else is so actively and frequently expressed, the real divide is made even clearer and more explicit.

However, as we all know as well, the Internet as a communications and expressive platform knows few if any boundaries. While on the Internet of course, some are more equal than others the specific nationality as framed by boundaries and constitutions and legislation is left somewhere in the background only to be invoked at times of crisis or system failure.

 And that is why the language and conceptualization of the US vs. foreigners seems so odd and unsettling since on the Internet no one is a “foreigner” (and no one is a “national” except possibly of the nation of the Internet and its netizens/”citizens”…

 This isn’t to idealize the Internet as a place without boundaries but rather to state the obvious, I’m able to and am frequently active in being in my home in Canada or with my friends in Brazil or with business colleagues in India instantaneously and seamlessly from anywhere I happen to be able to connect–no passports, no jurisdictional entanglements, in many cases no authorities evidently hovering in the background. So when something like Ed Snowden’s revelations re-arrange again the Internet world around boundaries–around “us” and “them”, “citizens” and “foreigners” it feels, well, so 20th century.

And to go on a wee bit–what is equally unsettling is the knowledge again that we (foreigners) have gleaned from Ed Snowden’s revelations that the marginal and largely notional “protections” that distance and boundaries have up to now offered to us from the over-weaning and often absurdist actions by US authorities can now be seen as having been finally and irrevocably “disappeared”; and while we may be “foreigners” from the perspective of “rights”, we are very much not foreigners from the perspective of being somehow subject to the actions of US authorities wherever we may or whatever we may be doing anywhere in the world.

And of course, this is the case not simply for the usual (“legitimate”) suspects but also for ordinary citizens, businesses, governments, whatever–since the power of the Internet and the facility with which its depth of penetration has been projected almost universally has meant that the power wielded by those authorities is now global in scope and reach and essentially unrestricted in its actions. Thus in the sense of being subjects to US authority (or the authority of anyone with the wealth and facility to effectively use these tools–recent days have seen reports of similar actions by spooks in India and Brazil) no one is now a “foreigner”–in that area we are all equal and equally powerless.

So, if we are all — USAians and everyone else now subjects of the omnipresent eyes, ears and capacities for actions at a distance of the Internet and ICTs in general; where are the structures and rules, procedures, legislative mechanisms that would allow all of us–citizens of an Internet-enabled world to hold those wielding this authority to some measure of accountability and transparency.

Without those mechanisms and those rules and procedures–we all and in this we must include all of us USAians and the like–will be the objects of control and subject of the authority of a future SurveillanceState without recourse or appeal. The time to recognize that we are all equally citizens of the Internet world (and equally foreigners in the boundary burdened world where you need a passport to be on the Internet) and to get about the job of building the governance institutions for the world that we are all living in and put paid to those institutions that govern the world that we are in the process of out-growing.