March 11, 2022 A Borderless Internet

Kazuhito Kidachi
Corporate Director (CTO)

If you read the title of this Column and thought, “no, no, now hold on, the internet does have borders! China's Great Firewall is famous and ......”, then you’re in a sense correct. In fact, in Chapter 1, titled "The New Rules of the Translation Economy," of the book "Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy", released in 2017, of which I oversaw the Japanese translation, the heading "The internet has many borders" is followed by the below statement.

You’d think that a borderless internet would lead to a more borderless world. But actually the opposite has occurred. The internet may be technically borderless, but a growing number of countries are creating virtual and legal borders.

Such a state of affairs is often referred to as the 'splinternet', a term coined by combining splinter, meaning to fragment, and internet, and can be interpreted as a reflection of the different stances and approaches towards the internet in different countries. Incidentally, the Great Firewall, mentioned at the beginning of this article, refers to China's internet censorship system and is a combination of the word firewall with the Great Wall of China.

Presently, with the ongoing situation between Russia and Ukraine, the negative consequences of a splinternet are rapidly becoming more severe. According to reports, although it’s unlikely that the internet will be completely shut down in Russia and in other countries or areas, there’s already a growing fragmentation across various online services. As a result, information asymmetries have led to tragic differences in views - even between members of the same family.

The web, that is the internet, has the power to change society for the better. I continue to believe this, even if I’m told such a viewpoint is too optimistic, and I make such claims to students attending our ongoing recruitment information sessions (in Japanese). However, to be honest, these days I’m tormented by a level of powerlessness that I’ve never felt before as well as an awareness that the strength of my beliefs is being tested once again.

Thinking back to my student days when I first encountered the internet, the greatest attraction of the internet (and of course the web) was the ability to explore diverse information from all over the world without having to be conscious of national borders. Although it’s long since become an old-fashioned expression, I remember feeling a mysterious sense of omnipotence, akin to pleasure, as I continued to 'surf the net' for hours at a time.

Leaving aside the fact that borders actually can be visually identified from space, such as cities being lit-up at night, we often hear astronauts remark that borders are invisible. And, when thinking back to my student days using the internet, I’ve come to realize that, by superimposing an image of the Earth from space onto the internet world where it was unnecessary to be aware of national borders, I unconsciously acquired such a macro-perspective only afforded to astronauts.

While residing in Japan, in almost real time, it was possible to find out what was happening on the other side of the world with a single click – such as the status of the coffee machine in the Trojan Room laboratory at Cambridge University (for a while it was called "the most famous coffee pot in the world"). The process of accepting this as normal, everyday life was an enjoyable and unconventional extension of my spatial awareness.

It would be good if each and every internet user could communicate more efficiently and effectively with the world, thereby expanding their spatial awareness and notions of common ground. This does not reduce information asymmetry to zero, nor should it (there will always be necessary disparities), however, it could at least minimize the lamentable divisions over what is truly correct information and factual awareness. Am I the only one who thinks so?

Surrounded by many pressing environmental and social issues such as global warming, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, hunger, poverty, and discrimination, we should no longer be hating each other or fighting wars. On this planet, we should be increasingly cooperating with one another on how to lead human civilization to sustainable development. I believe that the indispensable means for this is not the splinternet, but rather a borderless internet.

At a recent dinner party for W3C Japan members, I met Professor Jun Murai - known as the father of the Internet in Japan. Seeing Professor Murai again brought back memories of his final lecture at Keio University's Shonan Fujisawa Campus - which left a particularly deep impression on me. The following is a brief synopsis of part of that lecture, delivered on January 16 2020 (a full transcript is posted on the Matsubo Tech Blog (in Japanese)).

In summary, Professor Murai declared that the internet has created a common environment where individuals can share digital data and communicate globally for the first time - and that this has become the norm. However, he noted, we also have conventional, international space in which there are wars, economic sanctions etc. So, we have these two spaces simultaneously co-existing. Professor Murai then cautioned that in the era of internet civilization, and especially amongst internet natives, this notion, this norm, is taken for granted. He summed up by insisting that it’s very important to cherish this common, shared environment, that is the internet, and work together to prevent any division, shutting down, or elimination.

When I first read the full transcript, I remember being strongly impressed by the above message. In some small way, I too want to protect the borderless internet. And I sincerely hope that readers of this Column will agree with me.

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