What is the geography of cyberspace?

9 November 2012 - A Workshop on Security in Baku, Azerbaijan


The technical architecture of the Internet is not based on the geographic frontiers of nation-states. It is therefore usually labeled as technically borderless. However, cyberspace is not a natural and uniform space like the high seas and the extra-atmospheric space; it is man-made and far from uniform, let alone without regulation. Physical geography, technical standards and national legislations do imply the existence of elements similar to those encountered in the definition of political geography. This is manifest in the Internet’s three different layers, for instance: • the Internet is a global cross-border infrastructure; but is built on a network of cables that has a certain topology: physical bottlenecks, be they due to geographic constraints (landlocked territories for instance) or political decisions (voluntary limitation of the number of entry points), represent potential checking points • the IP addresses and Domain Names form a logical rather than geography-based system; but IP addresses can be distributed on a national basis (as in some Asian countries) and following a link from google.com to for instance weibo.cn has direct jurisdictional implications, as if crossing a virtual frontier • online sites and platforms are accessible from anywhere in the world, irrespective of the location of their servers; but their Terms of Service are the internal “law” of their “digital territory”, often accessible only to registered members In many respects, cyberspace is composed of multiple spaces, some public, some private and some both public and private. The capacity to freely cross physical and virtual frontiers through cyberspace does not mean that they are none. In other terms, Cyberspace is a cross-border space, rather than a borderless one. However, as online activities often involve actors and intermediaries in multiple physical locations, diverse sets of laws and rules often overlap and frequently are in conflict. The mere extension of national physical frontiers onto cyberspace – like sovereignty extends to territorial waters or overlaying aerial space – is probably not a sufficient approach. In that context, the workshop will address the following topic: what is the geography of Cyberspace and how does it reflect and differ from the physical geography? Corollary questions are: given that it is an entirely man-designed infrastructure, can it be used to address some of the pressing issues regarding privacy, freedom of expression, intellectual property and security? And is it possible to both enable the resolution of disputes among more than 2 billion users and preserve the universality of the network?