Thursday, April 24, 2008

Geographical Boundaries in a Cyberworld

If a country launches a rocket against another country that is an act of war. If a well organized group does a raid against a country that is still an act of war a la the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War. But what if a group of individuals, allied with a government in some form, did damage online or against individuals of a foreign country? These are questions being posed by a small but growing number of people. It is time geographers also take a side interest in this debate.

International online interaction started off slowly in the virtual world. Different servers for the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea, and China kept users separate. The rise of massive servers in Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) and virtual worlds like Second Life have allowed people to interact with thousands of foreigners (countries even have embassies in Second Life!). The globalized communications arena has made data transfers easier as well.

Many have used these new abilities to have fun and drive markets but there has been evil done as well. Hacking has cost millions. Hate has spread easier free of geographical limits to speech.

Loyal citizens like the Red Hacker Alliance attack foreign websites when their country is "attacked" by "foes." In the game Lineage, South Korean and Japanese mobs would attack each other and even lynch virtual characters. Terrorist groups have created virtual worlds for fund raising and training purposes. Countries have been involved in international attacks. During the Bronze Statue controversy, it is alleged Russian-government officials in the breakaway region of Transnistria hacked critical Estonian telecommunications.

Is the Bronze Statue a cause of a country's sovereignty being violated? If Hezbollah does a virtual nuclear bomb on the Swedish embassy in Second Life, destroying not only the visual setting but also data, is that an attack on Sweden? If the Chinese government continues to turn a blind eye to hackers attacking pro-Tibetan separatists (hat tip to TDXAP) is China permitting a crime equal to piracy?

The answer to these countries lies on the premise of whether or not geographical sovereignty extends into cyberspace. Even then it is a matter of scale. If an attack does damage on the real world through a cyber attack then it is much more of a crime compared to a no "real world" damage hacking attack defacing informative websites. Those probably will probably be regarded as mere annoyances or harassment. However, laws continue to spread in the online world and this is one thing geographers should keep their eyes on.

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