Why we need governments in cyberspace: a response to the Strongest Tribe article

In the article, you set out a serious of arguments, implicit and explicit, about the need, or lack thereof, for governments in cyberspace.  In particular, you argue that the United States is the strongest tribe. There are some concerns with your analysis, which suggest that there is a general lack of awareness about the role and reason for governments.

First, I would hesitate to characterize the United States or any government as a tribe.  As such, that invalidates a fundamental principle within the United States, of which you are a citizen, the rule of law.  Tribal loyalties supersede the law.  By contrast, the law, the rule of law, are above the tribe.  We can see this in the discussion of the first two books of Plato’s republic.  What is justice is seen as what is good for the city and yet, it is modified by a higher law that the city must mediate. In the case of the United States, it is the constitution. We, American citizens, are bound by the constitutions NOT a loyalty to a tribe.

Now, in the international realm, one may accept that international relations reflect a tribal understanding of justice. Yet, that ignores what the United States (and other democracies) has done (with fits and starts) since 1948: upholding the UN Charter.  In other words, there has been an on-going attempt to bring the rule of law to the international politics.

Second, one should pause and give a thought to what it would mean for our safety as citizens and our allegiance to a government, any government that draws it legitimacy, in large part from its ability to protect us, when a government CANNOT protect us.  Do you really want a world where you rely upon a private company to protect you?  Do you see that as more accountable than a democratic government bound by the rule of law and due process?  I like the various anti-virus providers, but I certainly would not put the safety of the regime, in their hands.  Why would you allow an unelected private corporation to have that power over you?

The lessons of the phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom and Rupert Murdoch’s baleful effect on the United Kingdom’s political culture should give one pause for thought.  The reporters and editors, of a private corporation, determined what was in the public interest to hack into phones, dig through waste bins, and put its corporate enemies under surveillance. In effect, they, and not elected officials determined the public interest and they justified all sorts of activities that benefit the newspaper without a concern for accountability.

Third, how can anyone seriously believe that their AV, even the top of the line from a private company, is going to stand up to a government focused on breaking it? I do not mean from a technical perspective, I mean from the sense that governments have more tools and resources at their disposal for just this reason.

Fourth, why do you assume states are threats?  I am more likely to die from food poisoning when a restaurant employee forgets to wash his hands after using the toilet than I am from the Seal Team Six.  We forget at our peril the reasons why we have governments in the first place.  The analysis, and others such as this, forgets the purpose and meaning of government: justice, common good, common defence.  The analysis that the state is a threat because it has more resources misses the point of why or how the state has more resources. It conflates resources with intent. Let us judge a state by its intent, its founding principles, its regime, than simply the resources at it disposal.  A state has amassed the resources because the citizens have consent to it. They want the state to have the power to defend them, as and when it is need. In other words, they want to know they are safe because the state is acting on their behalf.

What is particularly problematic about the analysis is that lets every person act as a tyrant. The individual judges the common good rather than accepting that their behaviour has to be judged against the common good as embodied in the law. In other words, it allows every individual to act as the tyrant.  They do not need to obey any law they do not like. The idea is deeply corrosive and it runs throughout cyberspace. The hidden problem with this view is that it leads to a brutal world where might makes right. The strongest will rule in cyberspace. One needs to go back to a pre-technological era to understand this point. Thucydides said it best.

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must; only between equals, can there be justice.

In a democracy, we are equals before the law and before nature. Without a government, there is no equality.  As such, a good government act as a good shepherd in cyberspace. Without them, we would be prey to the wolves.  In other words, we need good government in cyberspace for the same reasons we need it in the physical world.  The worst form of government is one that preys upon its people. See Syria to see this in action. Do you seriously believe that the United States government is acting towards its citizens as the Syrian government has done?

I am also puzzled by the reference to the Paris Commune. Surely, the world is not in the situation of France.  The ideal of the commune was hardly as benevolent as one would imagine. To be sure, the conditions before the uprising were terrible and the fact that France had lost the war did not help.  Yet, there is no comparison between the West, at least, of 2012 and Paris of March 1871.  I appreciate the motives of the Occupy movement, but it seems incredible to equate the living conditions within Paris with those in Western capitals today. More to the point, even the Paris Commune set up a government.

Finally, there is a sad misunderstanding that if a government regulates cyberspace it controls it.  A government regulates our physical space, there are laws, but that does not mean the government controls our actions.  We live under laws of our own making.  In doing so, we benefit from them and we have redress when they are broken. We can exercise free speech, the right of assembly and other rights within the law.  Why should this not be the case cyberspace?  Would you really want to live in a world, or a city, where the rule of law does not exist? How will you defend yourself? Soon you would have to turn to a local warlord or a protector. Yet, how would you judge their justice?  Moreover, whom would you turn to if the local protector turned out to be a wolf and not a shepherd?  In effect, we return to where we started a need to understand the reason we have governments in the first place.  An understanding that seems sadly lacking in most debates of cyberspace.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the 10th and 51st Federalist Papers.  Perhaps instead of a Paris Commune we need a constitutional convention to set out our rights and those we want the government, a government of, by and for the people, to uphold.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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