Fifty years ago this week, at 10:30 on a warm night at the University of California, Los Angeles, the first email was sent. It was a decidedly local affair. A man sat in front of a teleprinter connected to an early precursor of the internet known as Arpanet and transmitted the message “login” to a colleague in Palo Alto. The system crashed; all that arrived at the Stanford Research Institute, some 350 miles away, was a truncated “lo.”
The network has moved on dramatically from those parochial—and stuttering—origins. Now more than 200 billion emails flow around the world every day. The internet has come to represent the very embodiment of globalization—a postnational public sphere, a virtual world impervious and even hostile to the control of sovereign governments (those “weary giants of flesh and steel,” as the cyberlibertarian activist John Perry Barlow famously put it in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996).
But things have been changing recently. Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, once said that national law had no place in cyberlaw. That view seems increasingly anachronistic. Across the world, nation-states have been responding to a series of crises on the internet (some real, some overstated) by asserting their authority and claiming various forms of digital sovereignty. A network that once seemed to effortlessly defy regulation is being relentlessly, and often ruthlessly, domesticated.
From firewalls to shutdowns to new data-localization laws, a specter of digital nationalism now hangs over the network. This “territorialization of the internet,” as Scott Malcomson, a technology consultant and author, calls it, is fundamentally changing its character—and perhaps even threatening its continued existence as a unified global infrastructure.