The web and its territories

(Well… DNS and territories)

Two things I’ve read recently converged in my mind and reminded me of work in geography undertaken a while ago about the ways apparently abstract or immaterial aspects of the internet are intimately tied up with traditional geo-political borders and territories.

First, as James Bridle finishes his essays about geographic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) for the Citizen-Ex project – its really interesting to reflect on the often fraught and muddy geo-politics of the domain name system (DNS), which Bridle expresses beautifully. The stories about the Libyan (.ly), Syrian (.sy) and British Indian Ocean Territory (.io) domains are especially arresting.

Second, over on Culture Digitally, Adam Fish wrote a post about the growth in interest in the high seas, the upper reaches of the atmosphere and space for creating extra-legal territories for ‘unencumbered’ innovation and for the delivery of services without the need for territorial wrangling:

Technical approaches towards national internet sovereigntyincluding IP address blocking, domain names, key words, and packet filtering. Non-technical forms of censorship include laws, regulations, threats, bribes, and arrests of publishers, ISPs, and authors. Reporters without Borders identifies 19 countries – including the US and the UK – along with Cuba, China, Iran, and North Korea, all of which use one or several of these tactics to create a distinct national internet.

Certainly, what governments want for their people and what the people want for themselves frequently diverge. But while we may agree that internet censorship by authoritarian dictatorships is an affront to free communication, can we really put our faith in Facebook’s drones? It is possible to overthrow a government and depose a dictator but it is nearly impossible to revolt against corporate drones and extraterritorial CEOs.

Both of these reminded me of a few things in geography: of work in  by Mark Wilson about 15 years ago and (of course) by Matthew Zook (also about 15 years ago [e.g.]) concerning the economic geographies of the infrastructures of the internet(s). It also strongly reminded me of Alexander Murphy‘s paper in the Annals of AAG a couple of years ago about ‘Territory’s continuing allure‘. It is interesting, amongst the hyperbole of immateriality and of ‘off-shore’ data centres through which our exhaust data are analysed and sold on, that (the idea of) territory maintains certain kinds of political-economic importance in particular circumstances.

As Murphy contends (in a different context but I suggest the argument holds in relation to the examples above):

if Agnew (1999, 504) is right that the spatialities of power will change “as material conditions and associated modes of understanding of them change” (italics added), then the continu- ing hold of modernist conceptions of territory on the political–geographic imagination (see Gregory 1994) must be seen as fundamental to any effort to understand the character and prospects of the current system (p. 1214)

Novel spatialities of power call out for a reinvention of the linguistic terms and conceptual frameworks we use to make sense of the world (see, e.g., Allen’s [2011] call for a consideration of what he terms topologies of power). At the same time, if we are to make sense of the circumstances and struggles shaping the political future, we must not underplay territory’s continuing ideological hold and practical significance … We also need to factor in the enduring significance of territorially based worldviews that continue to shape the perspective and ideas of billions of people–and by extension the institutions and regimes that circumscribe their lives.(p. 1224)


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