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McAsh's Thoughts

February 6, 2012

The ‘Net in Cyberspace

Filed under: Cyberlaw — @ 1:03 am

Understanding Cyberspace

LAWRENCE LESSIG, in CODE: VERSION 2.0 at page 9, said:

“Some in cyberspace believe they’re in a community; some confuse their lives with their cyberspace existence. Of course, no sharp line divides cyberspace from the Internet. But there is an important difference in experience between the two. Those who see the Internet simply as a kind of Yellow-Pages-on-steroids won’t recognize what citizens of cyberspace speak of. For them, “cyberspace” is simply obscure.

“Some of this difference is generational. For most of us over the age of 40, there is no “cyberspace,” even if there is an Internet. Most of us don’t live a life online that would qualify as a life in “cyberspace.” But for our kids, cyberspace is increasingly their second life. There are millions who spend hundreds of hours a month in the alternative worlds of cyberspace…”

I identify that lack of understanding of the subject matter of a concept informs misconception about it. There is great difficulty in defining the Internet, and many people including great jurists have often confused the Internet with cyberspace. Although little separates them, it needs be noted that both concepts are different and an improper definition of these terms will result in great confusion to law makers, prosecutors and even the justice system. Thus, I am sharing freely my thoughts about what I think Cyberspace is and how it differs from the world famous Internet.

The Internet can be described as an interconnected system of networks connecting computers around the world through a standard platform known as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). Put more descriptively, the Internet provides a platform upon which computers connect with other computers in multiple networks. It is not a physical or tangible entity, even though it also comprises a physical layer.[1] Rather, it is a giant network that links innumerable smaller groups of networks together. It is a system whereby networks are interconnected in a manner that permits any computer on any of the networks to communicate with computers on any other network in the same system. This global web of linked networks and computers is referred to, in a loose sense, as the Internet, or cyberspace.[2]

Nadan Kamath opined that a technical analyst would define the Internet as a global network of computers based on TCP/IP and other high-speed communications protocols with thousands of nodes and millions of users, while the rest of the world see the Internet is an exciting new way to communicate.[3] Solum and Chung simply defined the Internet as “a global network of networks that has been the platform for revolutionary innovation.”[4]

Technically, and as Lessig implies above, the cyberspace is not the Internet. In fact, the Internet is just one of the many components of the cyberspace. As noted above, the Internet is the platform upon which the cyberspace operates. While the Internet connects computers to networks through the use of gateways facilitated by the TCP/IP platform, the cyberspace defines a more general network which connects other gadgets and equipments to each other, and where necessary, to the Internet.

The use of cell phones, PDAs and Smartphones to connect with each other or with other computers connected to the Internet is a more general description that fits the cyberspace, less the Internet. The adoption of SCADA to control and maintain the public infrastructure and economic systems is another description consistent with cyberspace. Intranet – the connection  of computers within an enclosed network system through the use of closed platforms like Local Area Networks, Wireless Area Networks or Virtual Private Network without necessarily opening up to the outside world – is perhaps the closest antonym to the Internet – characterised by its opening up and unfettered access to outsiders. Yet, for as much a degree as the Internet is a part of the cyberspace, the Intranet is also. Computer game consoles, automotive sensor systems which electronically control the operations of a car,[5] RFIDs, medical devices, smart electricity meters, alarm systems, smart thermometers, and other control systems, also form part of the cyberspace, and can be remotely accessed by computers using sophisticated tools.

While it is convenient to populate other components of the cyberspace less the Internet, the role of the Internet in enhancing and facilitating these connections and communications between gadgets cannot be over-emphasized. In fact, save for a few proprietary networks that had existed prior to the Internet, like the telephone services, Compuserve and AOL, and the fax, the emergence of this largely described cyberspace environment was influenced by the Internet.[6]

According to Zittrain, the Internet was designed by researchers and members of the academy with no pecuniary prowess or motive, apart from whatever they got from the United States government as grants.[7] This, he maintained, influenced its design. The engineers had no interest in controlling the network or its users’ behavior. They rather made it publicly available and shared its design freely from the earliest moments of its development. They also kept options open for later network use and growth.

Initially, the Internet was used for academic research and non-profit activities, limiting its availability to the outside world. It was managed by Jon Postel religiously in furtherance of that purpose, until it was taken over by the US government and contracted to Government Systems Inc in 1990,[8] who allowed commercial interconnections in 1991 and consumer applications became ubiquitous on the Internet. The Internet was then thrown open, and the public at large was able to sign up, whether or not the subscriber was signing up for academic or religious purposes. Zittrain posits further that this “opened the development of Internet applications and destinations to a broad, commercially driven audience.”[9]

In a not too far future (I hope), I will be posting my findings on the infrastructure of the Internet, as eruditely postulated by Larry Lessig (Code vs E2E), Prof. Yochai Benkler (3-Layer Principle) and Lawrence B. Solum and Minn Chung (6-Layer Principle).

[1] There are various theories on the exact nature and architecture of the Internet, but the ‘Layer Principle’ has been generally adopted as most comprehensive. It will be discussed subsequently.

[2] Ashaolu & Oduwole, Policing Cyberspace in Nigeria, (Ibadan: Lifegate Publishers) 2009

[3] Nadan Kammath, Law Relating To Computers, Internet And E-Commerce- A Guide To Cyberlaws (Dehli: Universal Law Pub.) 2001 page 266

[4] Lawrence B. Solum and Minn Chung, The Layers Principle: Internet Architecture and the Law, University of San Diego School of Law Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper 55 June 2003, available at page 3. For a general description of the Internet, see Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: the Fate of the Commons in a Connected World 5–23 (Random House 2001); see also, Michael L. Dertouzos, What Will Be : How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (HarperEdge 1998); Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Oxford University Press 2001); Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (2d ed., Blackwell Publishers 2000); Michael Hauben & Ronda Hauben, Netizens: On the History and Impact of UseNet and the Internet (IEEE Computer Society Press 1997); Thomas S. Wurster, Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy (Harvard Business School Publishing 1999).

[5] See Chunka Mui, Never Mind About Playstations or Zappos; Are You Ready for Your Car to Be Hacked? Available at accessed January 20, 2012.

[6] This is known as generativity, a term which implies that new and innovative solutions are created as a result of an existing innovation.

[7] Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Yale University Press, 2007 at Page 27

[8] See Goldsmith and Wu, Who Controls the Internet, Illusions of a Borderless World (New York: Oxford Press) 2006 Page 35

[9] Zittrain, ibid