Who owns the Internet? A better question, and one more pertinent to understanding some of the major issues in international politics today, is Who governs cyberspace? Some, including many of the Internet's most obsessive users, argue that no one governs cyberspace, nor should anyone attempt to govern it. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), two bills that were, until last week, moving through Congress at the behest of major economic interests concerned about Internet piracy, were derailed because many netizens rebelled against this particular effort on the part of government to regulate cyberspace. It was not the first time that the Internet had "organized," in its own disorganized fashion, to fight back against attempts to rein in the anarchy of cyberspace.
Saki Knafo, in a two-part story for the Huffington Post entitled "Anonymous and the War over the Internet" (see Part I and Part II), describes the "Chanology War of 2008" in which the Church of Scientology found itself under "attack" on the Internet and being protested--in a non-virtual way--on the sidewalks of 142 cities around the world for having pressured YouTube into removing a video of Tom Cruise rambling incoherently about Scientology. Knafo regards this as the point at which the geeks gathering in certain IRC rooms began to realize they had the power to influence events irl (in real life).
The success in organizing anti-Scientology protests worldwide earned public recognition for a movement--if that is the right word--called "Anonymous." Anonymous has no leaders, no hierarchy, no formal structure of any kind, and no members, in the usual sense of that term. It does, however, have an ethos, one which is focused on preserving cyberspace as an unregulated sphere of activity--an anarchical society, if I may use the term Hedley Bull applied to the realm of international relations. Consequently, Anonymous acts (and that generally means hacks) in defense of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks or Kim Dotcom and MegaUploads or others thought to be victims of efforts to curb Internet freedom.
It is not immediately clear how we ought to conceptualize cyberspace in terms of its relationship to government. The U.S. Department of Defense (and other military organizations around the world) view it as the "fifth domain" of conflict (after land, sea, air, and outer space). It is a realm of espionage and warfare--that is, another space in which U.S. national security interests must be defended. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce see cyberspace as a medium of economic activity, but also a criminal wasteland. It is a domain in which terrorists plot, digital pirates steal intellectual property, and hackers routinely defraud the Internet's most gullible users (your grandmother, perhaps) and occasionally wreak havoc on its most sophisticated users (your bank or credit card company). The U.S. Department of State regards cyberspace as a tool for the spread of liberal values across the world. What must be defended in this conception are free access to uncensored information and free expression of political views. Other parts of the U.S. Government view cyberspace as a venue for the dissemination of information, a tool for advanced communications, a means of spreading educational opportunity, or a forum for advocacy. Cyberspace is all of these things and much more.
Norms for the governance of cyberspace are emerging, but not easily. There are clashes of interests being played out between states (e.g., China and the U.S.) because states see themselves as the logical sources of regulation where regulation (perhaps in the form of arms control or copyright protection) is needed. But here, as in so many other aspects of the emerging post-Westphalian system, states are not the only actors with interests and the ability to advance them forcefully. As Anonymous has demonstrated on numerous occasions, there are cybercitizens who in a very real sense live in cyberspace and see it as territory to be defended against the encroachments of governments, corporations, international organizations, or interest groups. And this fact adds a layer of complexity to efforts to develop forms of governance for this new anarchical society.