Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 3

Living in the Global Information Infrastructure: Some Concerns

by David Farber (

This article first appeared as a presentation for the panel, "Potholes along the Information Superhighway?" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, February 18, 1995.


Vice President Gore has proposed that the nations of the world undertake the building of a Global Information Infrastructure -- the GII. While most leaders agree with the sprit of the Gore proposal -- namely to provide a mechanism which could invigorate the world economy in the forthcoming information age, many disagree with his belief that it will bring democracy to the world. They interpret such statements as being another example of American colonialism. It is this basic lack of uniform global agreement -- on what terms mean, what rules apply to electronic commerce and what impact a GII will have on individual nations -- that underlies the comments I will make. The lack of agreement raises questions about the universality of cyberspace. I would like, in this brief note, to ask a set of questions that may stimulate some thinking in this area.


John Perry Barlow is credited with having observed that "Our Bill of Rights is but a local ordinance in Cyberspace." He was referring to the fact that the basic rights which we hold self-evident are only self-evident to our society and are not accepted worldwide. Similarly, our notions of morality, law, right and wrong are Eurocentric and are not accepted uniformly worldwide. Our society is oriented to the individual; the rights of the individual often take priority over the rights of society as a whole. This view is certainly not a worldwide view. Asia, especially Singapore, is fond of pointing out that the Asian view puts the group first, while the individual is viewed in the light of what is good for the group. What "side" will cyberspace citizens take in this very profound cultural argument? Can both views live compatibly in a closely coupled cyber-world?

In cyberspace individual national laws and customs, which are often different and contradictory, may conspire to limit the ability of individuals and corporations to freely interchange information, ideas, images and spoken works, even when those items are legal and appropriate in the nation of one of the participants. Many societies currently, for example, limit the availability of satellite dishes. Several governments have equated Internet access, along with the fax machine, as the prime vehicles for external disturbances to their control of their society and have stated that in the event of any future internal disturbances they will sever the Internet connections rapidly. What will be the impact of such attitudes on international commerce and learning?

The privacy laws that many governments have reasonably instituted to protect their citizens from having citizens' personal information flow outside the control of the laws of their nation raise many difficulties when one is engaged in a GII environment. The establishment of directory structures which involve some nation's citizens may be in violation of the laws of that nation. Libel laws are traditionally national, yet in cyberspace, libel is instantaneous and globally damaging. Is there a notion of global liability? How do I sue a person in another nation? If I can, do we achieve the lowest common denominator? Is there a global "right to privacy"? How is it enforced? What happens to global commerce if there is not a common understanding?

Many nations and cultures have dramatically different perceptions of what is "proper" and not proper for their citizens to possess or to view. Consider an extreme case -- child pornography. We in the United States have strong laws which forbid the distribution, possession, etc. of such material; other cultures may not agree with us or have different notions of the control of such material. Suppose citizens of two such countries send each other such material and the material transits the United States; is storage on a US computer (without the knowledge of the owner of the computer) against the law? Can or should the US intercept such material and "delete" it? Should they arrest the people when they next enter the US? Should they close down the computer used to store the material?

Is there an international agreement on the transport of cryptographic material across national boundaries? Is there a right of "innocent" passage -- that is, if it is bound for another nation and just stops for a short stay -- mail relays, for example? What is the right of a nation to monitor the contents or addresses of electronic communications that are transiting the nation?

The Cyber-economy

As the GII becomes more a part of the everyday business of nations, it will become more and more necessary for commerce to take place among the users of the infrastructure. We can expect in a very short period an international electronic marketplace where goods of all types -- merchandise, information, software etc. -- are being bought and sold.

Historically there has always been a need to create a way of paying for such goods in order to motivate the supply side of the marketplace. Currently our primitive electronic marketplaces have no very effective mechanisms for paying for goods.

This creates an interesting and exciting opportunity to examine just what is needed to supply a mechanism for the exchange of electronic currency and how such a mechanism can exist in a national and international arena.

The issues raised by the potential existence of an international electronic marketplace (IEM) are not limited to just how to pay for things. There is the need to have the equivalent of credit cards, checks and paper money, and with each, various shades of traceability and privacy. There is the need for escrow mechanisms and international exchange etc.

The additional issues raised by the IEM include:


Nowhere are the challenges greater than in the possibilities that the GII offers in education. There is no better way to create international understanding, friendship and exchange than communication and cooperation between schools and students all over the world at all levels. Education applications cover most potential uses of the GII and impose demanding requirements on the infrastructure. Education is also an area where the public interest is evident.

The role of the universities in educating the citizens who will lead their nations into this future is to call upon them to pioneer the exploration of the benefits to be gained as well as the problems to be faced in this new world. Exploring the modern, worldwide, multi-campus university -- the University of Cyberspace -- as well as interacting with lower grade schools and providing continuing education for individual-centered lifelong learning should therefore be included in the G-7 vision. The intent should be not to just perform experiments in exchanging of courses over the network but rather to explore, understand and solve the complicated issues of inter-organizational operation, economics, national laws and tradition that must be solved in order to create such an extended university.

Perhaps most important, however, is that we must understand how such an organization can enrich university life for the students as well as the faculty. The design of the university must address this issue with highest priority if it is to be a success.

A group of universities strongly believes that the lessons to be learned from this effort will show the way for better understanding of how industry and governments can use the GII. This effort will contribute to the new strategic knowledge necessary to cope with the global structural change of the telecommunications, media and information industries, a change which is expected to lead to an information society. This rapid change calls for extraordinary programs in research and education to provide the competence necessary in government, in industry, and among users and all parts of society. However, the most important outcome will be to create a new generation of future leaders who have lived and learned in the borderless world of the GII and who thus will be better prepared to understand and control the structural changes being created by the information society in order to secure fuller, more meaningful employment and social welfare for their people.


You may have noticed that mostly I have asked questions. I believe that answering these questions will eventually require us to face the real issues of national sovereignty in cyberspace and whether or not we will maintain forever the fiction of national boundaries that extend not only into inter-planetary space but also into cyberspace. ¤

David Farber is The Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunication Systems at the University of Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 1995 by David Farber. All Rights Reserved.

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