Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: Digital Citizenship in a Bordered World

The following transcript is from Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s Data at Risk colloquium on digital citizenship hosted by the Center for Media at Risk with Data Refuge and The Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. She spoke on October 3, 2018 at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.


My name is Atossa Abrahamian. I am a Senior Editor at The Nation and I wrote a book about global citizenship and statelessness, which doesn’t sound like it has a whole lot to do with data but bear with me, it does.

The subject of the talk is how our ideas about citizenship are changing in a world where territorial borders and boundaries aren’t the only boundaries that matter. It’s going to walk through how citizenship stopped meaning what it used to mean or what a lot of people think it means and explore how data has become a new dimension of citizenship that governments are still trying to reckon with and figure out.

To be clear, this is something that scholars, lawyers and policy makers have all struggled to get a handle on for decades. I don’t have all the answers but what I will be doing is applying some of the research and reporting I’ve done on different varying forms of citizenship through the digital realm.

What is citizenship? That’s the fundamental question. I am splitting it in two categories. There is the analog definition, which is the one that nationalists tend to use, and that began around the Peace of Westphalia and the rise of the system of sovereign nation states starting in 1648 and continuing until today.

For most people for the world, the answer to the question what is citizenship is pretty straightforward. You might say it is where you were born, where your parents were born, where you’ve lived, where you have ties. You are a citizen of a country, and presumably it is a country to which you have some meaningful connection. In other words, citizenship is born of blood, soil and boundaries. These are territorial boundaries and these boundaries really matter.

The citizenship itself is a recognition from the government of your belonging and of your identity. You might get a travel document, a passport or an ID to represent this. Again, this might be obvious but you get a certain set of rights. It might be the right to vote or the right to consular representation. If you’re lucky, healthcare, childcare and stuff like that, maybe more so in some countries than others. It also will come with certain responsibilities, like paying taxes, military service, civil service or voting in certain countries.

My favorite representation of this fixed nationalist concept of citizenship is the “Man without a Country.” Has anyone heard of this story?

This is a short story published in 1863 in The Atlantic Monthly and dramatizing the life of a fictional American army lieutenant named Philip Nolan, who renounces his citizenship in a fit of anger during a trial for treason. He’s really mad at the judge and he is like, “Screw this, I am out of here.”

His punishment is that he has to spend the rest of his days at sea. He doesn’t get to come back home. He doesn’t even get news of America. He is completely marooned in the middle of nowhere and this starts to weigh on him. He doesn’t really miss dry land. He doesn’t really miss his friends but he misses his country. Over time, his room in the ship turns into a shrine to patriotism. This is how intense his love of his country is. In describing his anguish at being effectively stateless, the moral of the story is, you really have to respect the country you’re from. This is a deep tie that cannot just be renounced overnight.

That clashes significantly with the digital or global definition of citizenship, which is flexible, mutable, mobile and unequal. Here, there is an acknowledgement that not all citizens are equal and not all citizenships are created equal. Right now we’re in a kind of battle between the two versions of citizenship. There is the globalist cosmopolitan version and there’s the nationalist one. I think that the best summary of this conflict is from Prime Minister Theresa May from the UK. She says, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”

To be fair, Theresa May has a point, because by the old definition—the nationalist, analog definition–a global citizenship doesn’t really mean much. These are competing versions. One camp holds it as sacrd and fixed and immutable, and the other sees it as more transactional. One camp finds it very meaningful, and the other sees it as instrumental. To be clear, there are lots of shades of gray in between these two, but I think what we’re seeing in politics today is these two ideologies battling it out. And the question is, what version of the world do we want to live in?

The other irony in both of these versions of citizenship is that people are stuck between the national and the global. Capital is not. Capital can move very freely; people cannot. My favorite quote to illustrate this is actually my favorite quote from a tax lawyer ever, which maybe sounds like a low bar, but tax lawyers can be pretty funny.

Edward Kleinbard is a tax guy who did a lot of work on the Apple offshore tax evasion. He says, “Stateless people wander a hostile globe looking for asylum. By contrast stateless income,” which is the income that multinationals end up generating, “takes a bearing for any of a number of zero or low tax jurisdictions where it finds a ready welcome.”

There are solutions to these conflicts between borders and globalism. There is a solution that solves borders with money, on which I’m going to show you a video now. This is very essential to the work that I’ve been doing over the past five years. It’s looking at the market for citizenship and how money and commerce have changed our ideas about what citizenship means basically by putting a price tag on it.

This is a promotional video made by a company that actually helps people buy passports.

All that video is missing is like a nice cameo with Paul Manafort and then you’ve got it. It’s Tax Evasion 101.

In seriousness, citizenship is not this immutable “man without a country” thing anymore. It is literally something that rich people buy to avoid tax, to have an easier life. And some would say that citizenship is arbitrary to begin with and you might as well spend your money if you have it. This, also, is quite problematic. We’re not going to go into that too much today.

It does show that there are ways around the borders. These are the global rich. This is a nationalist nightmare. This is what Theresa May means when she says, “If you’re a citizen of everywhere, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” but there are actual citizens of nowhere too.

There are a lot of stateless people in the world as well. For every ultra high-net-worth billionaire, there are probably about a million people that have no nationality at all.

To go back to that quote from the tax guy, stateless income can find a home pretty much anywhere it likes. Stateless people are out of luck. This is just a summary from a year ago about how many stateless people are in each country. The Myanmar example is the Rohingya, which we’ve been hearing about a lot lately, unfortunately.

The definition of a stateless person is somebody who’s not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law. Some stateless people are refugees, some are just not recognized; and there are about 10 million in the world.

There is another kind of stateless person, which is going to start to explain the more utopian element of borderlessness and global citizenship. This is Gary Davis. He died a few years ago, but he led a pretty amazing life. Gary was a World War II veteran. He drove or he flew a plane. He was also a Broadway actor. I think he was from Philadelphia actually. I don’t remember where he was born but he’s definitely local.

As a result of fighting in the war, he was shell-shocked. He was very disillusioned by the system of countries and nation states that he saw as perpetuating a lot of violence. After the war, Gary Davis– then  26–walked into the US Embassy in Paris and renounced his American citizenship. There he declared himself a citizen of the world. I’m going to read you just a little bit from his memoirs, which I think are lovely.

He recalls, “As I walked out of the embassy into the little court, I sensed a strange freedom.” He saw two Marines standing outside his building carrying sidearms as if they belonged in the Middle Ages. He recalls feeling a little sorry for them. He wrote, “I’m still me. The only thing that changed is I was one passport lighter.” Then he says, “I slept that night quite illegally.”

Gary Davis did this to make a point. We cannot be defined by our governments; we definitely can’t be defined by the arbitrary lines that governments draw around themselves and around each other. And he saw this as a sort of emancipatory gesture towards world peace.

This is Gary when he was older. He ended up settling down in Vermont. A younger activist or any of us today might think that his activism was out of touch, especially given how little he achieved in the way of actually ending nationalism. But I think it’s really important to consider how much he saw. In 1948, he was 26. He lived to be almost 100. During his life he was able to witness in real-time technological changes, geopolitical changes and climate changes.

As he traveled the world with his world passport, he was convincing people, “This is a legitimate document. You have to let me in. I’m human too.” He fought tiny battles at checkpoints just as air travel was being made accessible to large numbers of people. He disseminated his message of world government during a time when landlines, fax machines, cell phones and computers helped us forget more and more the realities of distance, space and time. You won’t be surprised to hear that Gary saw a huge amount of potential in the internet which he was only just learning to use as he died.

This brings me to another example of the utopian thinking around digital sovereignty or the lack thereof. This is John Perry Barlow. He is one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He was an early thinker and man-about-town in the techno-utopian movement. Ity came up in California and had quite a libertarian bent, but I do think that his declaration of the independence of cyberspace from the early 90s says a lot about what people in the beginning– as the internet was coming up and becoming more and more popular– saw as potential for the internet and cyberspace: to be a state free zone where people actually got to define themselves.

We’ll just watch a couple of minutes of his declaration because it’s quite nice.

Again, that seems a little bit quaint today given how big a role cyberspace and the internet play in surveillance and in government, surveillance especially and also in a lot of not-so-savory government actions.

I think that John Perry Barlow maybe seems naïve now, but again there was a sense that maybe we could all be citizens of the world online. Maybe we could have this parallel existence or even an enhanced existence without having borders drawn around us all the time.

It’s not true that cyberspace is not a place. It’s true that it’s not physically in front of us. You can’t touch the internet. You can’t smell it unless something’s going really wrong. The Cloud is an imperfect metaphor which brings us to today’s topic, data.

Everything so far that we’ve discussed has hinged on how old ideas and sometimes laws about citizenship aren’t keeping up with technological realities. Gary Davis thought it was absurd to be of one place when you could travel so widely and meet people from all over. The rich clients of Henley & Partners don’t understand why their money can move so freely but they, as a function of being born in the wrong place, can’t. John Perry Barlow saw the digital world as emancipatory and libertarian and state-free.

All of these ideas are bringing to light the fundamental tensions that emerge in the relationship between the individual and the state, when territory and physical borders aren’t what we think they are or where we think they are or as important as we think they are.

A natural next question is, if I live in the U.S. I’m an American. All my records, birth certificate and whatnot are here but all of the data about me–whether it’s my photos or my Facebook profile or some stuff that the hackers stole–is stored in Kazakhstan or Estonia. Does that make you as well as American or whatever you are also a little bit Kazakh or Estonian?

Well, Estonia is trying to have it both ways. They have a territorial concept of citizenship, which is traditional. They have people born there, who work there who are part of Estonian society, a normal European country, 1.3 million citizens. But it also recently launched the first digital residency program in the world. It is a blockchain-based digital society of e-Estonia. Pretty much anyone can acquire e-residency in Estonia in order to access its digital government services. If you fill out the forms and become e-Estonian, you can open a business in Estonia, you can register a company, you can participate in an e-school. I’m not really sure what that means. You can open a bank account and you can have a digital ID with which you can identify yourself on various platforms and businesses in Europe mostly.

Interestingly, e-residents are not entitled to physical residency in Estonia unless they jump through the usual hoops. The connection between e-citizenship, e-residency and actual Estonian citizenship and residency is tenuous. There’s no fast track if you sign up online. It raises the question of whether there’s a new category of citizenship that’s emerging. It’s an example of a nation not as a state but as a service. It’s a way of layering digital citizenship that doesn’t really have borders on top of national territorial citizenship, which is bordered from the get-go.

It has the rights and perks and also to a very limited degree the responsibilities. I guess you’re not supposed to commit fraud as an e-Estonian with your e-Estonian technologies. All of these things are not dependent on where you physically are but on where your money is, your data is registered and where your digital footprints are. They are tethered in some way.

I’m just going to go back to the last slide because it makes more sense now. This is a data center map where all of these red dots are places where data lives. It’s by no means exhaustive but it just gives you a sense of where your stuff could be. Complicating things further: your stuff, your bits, your data could be in more than one place at once. There can be fragments of it in North America, there can be fragments of it in the South Pacific. There isn’t really a good way to find out exactly where everything is and so that further complicates the idea of if there is such a thing as digital citizenship, how do you allocate it and how do you determine it?

This is a photograph of the underwater cables that actually allow your data to move from one place to another. The photograph is from an artist called Trevor Paglen and he has a whole series of them. He learned to scuba dive just to go under the water and take pictures of these tubes to give us a visual reminder of how vulnerable our data is and how easily it can be accessed physically.

He told Wired magazine, “Once you start looking into the infrastructure, it becomes obvious very quickly that 99% of the world’s information goes through little tubes under the ocean and those are very juicy targets for someone who wants to surveil the world.”

All of these tubes take data from one place to another. Data is backed up in various places. It turns out that even when it’s registered somewhere, even if it’s registered under the guise of a sovereign state that is pitching itself as, “We are in charge of your data,” the backup is usually going to be somewhere else.

Estonia, a pretty small country, has a data consulate outside of Estonia. It’s in Luxembourg, which is even smaller than Estonia. This is so fascinating to me because it indicates that just as the nature of statehood and sovereignty is undergoing change in the digital age, the concept of the embassy is evolving as well. With no paper records for laws, Land Registry or other key national records, a digital continuity is really important for Estonia.

It opened this data embassy in Luxembourg to make sure everything was safe even if things went south in Estonia or if Russian hackers came up from Russia and wreaked havoc. There is some continuity with previous international law. The Vienna Convention is what set up the networks of embassies and consulates around the world. Normally, they are residences or nice houses, and this is really like a locker with servers. At the same time, it has the same trappings of a normal embassy.

Even though this is in Luxembourg, Estonia has jurisdiction over the data. Under this same Vienna Convention, delegates of the Estonian government who go in and out can carry a diplomatic pouch, which is inviolable. For the data embassy to be meaningful the same protections and privileges have to be applied. This would be effectively a corner of Estonian sovereign territory in cyberspace via a data center in Luxembourg.

You’re probably thinking, “Okay. E-residence is not real. What if Estonia didn’t have an actual country, can anyone just make up a country then if you can have these pseudo embassies?” Sure, people have definitely tried. This is the preamble to The Constitution of the Space Kingdom of Asgardia. I am a citizen of Asgardia, so don’t say anything bad about it.

Asgardia is a space- based nation. It is a nation with a blockchain on a satellite in outer space. It has not been recognized as a country by any other country, which is one of the things you need to be a country. It doesn’t really have a permanent population, although that depends how you define a permanent population. It doesn’t have a defined territory as we think of territory, but it’s a thing that’s real and its government is a bunch of eccentrics who decided to make a space-country.

I think what this really tells us is in the future and especially in the digital realm, where our definitions of state are maybe a little more fluid than we used to think. Does Asgardia have a permanent population if we count people like me, citizens of Asgardia, as part of this permanent population? I’m not deleting my account. I’m not moving my data off of this satellite so it’s permanent, but I’m not there. At the same time, I’m a citizen of Canada but I’m not there either. I’m here. This is highly unlikely to be recognized as a “real country” by the UN any time soon, but I do think it’s worth thinking about to come to an understanding of how these things are going to work in probably 500 years.

Obviously, there’s a Bitcoin opportunity in these fake nations or in these new types of nations. This is Bitnation, and it is a blockchain-based technology that “enables people to create and join virtual nations. This allows people to agree on their own social contracts between one another using smart contract technology, removing the needs for governments. Since it began in 2014, it has been offering traditional government services such as notaries, dispute resolution, marriages and voting systems without the need for a middleman.”

I haven’t tested it out, and I’m not sure this stuff would hold up in court, an American court at least, but these are some of the experiments that data citizenship is enabling.

How do you know where you are a data citizen of? You probably can’t, but some of the most interesting work around the subject that’s being done isn’t being done in law schools or in governments but by artists. My favorite installation, which I had mentioned in the op-ed that we talked about before, is by an artist named James Bridle, whom I happened to interview yesterday. He created this code called Citizen X. It’s a browser extension. You sign up for it and it looks in a secure way at where the websites that you’re going on are registered and located. How they are anchored to the ground. Instead of thinking of them as cyberspace or in The Cloud or this abstract way, he is drawing a direct line between the website and a piece of land somewhere.

This is what it looks like. You can be of many places at the same time. James started to make this program because he found out that when the Edward Snowden documents came out, the NSA was actually using a similar mechanism to figure out whom they were allowed to spy on. They’re not supposed to spy on US citizens. They don’t really have access to all records of where people were born and where their parents were born.

What they can do is monitor people’s online activities very closely using a similar algorithm to this, but we don’t know exactly what it was. To track people’s browsing and to assign to them a nationality based on that browsing. You can definitely mess with that. If you just look at loads and loads and loads of porn in Macedonia, that’ll skew the results. If you look at Twitter it’ll say, “Okay, 100% American.” It’s not reliable. It doesn’t actually say all that much about who you are, but it does offer an alternative way of thinking about how we assign nationality.

Who’s heard of GDPR? Does anyone understand it? Okay. GDPR is a really, really complicated law and it applies to more people than the people who are in Europe. It’s a European law, but the idea of it was to compel companies to follow certain privacy rules and allow people to have some amount of control over how their information is used. For it to be meaningful, they couldn’t just talk about European residents or citizens; they started to talk about European data subjects. This is a type of citizenship that is not constrained by borders. I thought that this was a nice cartoon illustrating how wide its scope can be and how confusing it can be, to be honest.

What is the data subject if it’s not those little green men in the spaceship? Let’s start with what a Data Subject is not. A Data Subject cannot be a dead person or a fake account. The idea behind the European Privacy Law is to provide digital privacy to real people regardless of their location or nationality. A Data Subject is a person who is the subject of a piece of data, which is weird because we usually think of the data as a part of us or an extension of us but in this law, we are of the data.

Again, the data is used to determine how we relate to the governments and to the laws and to the companies that are under this jurisdiction. As a subject of this data, as a Data Subject, GDPR entitles you to move your data from one platform to another, to know by whom and how it is being used, to contest decisions made by an algorithm. All of this stuff still needs to be tested. It’s unclear how meaningful it’s going to be or how much teeth this law is going to have, but the point is that it is a non-territorial definition of citizenship and subjecthood.

It gets at the same idea as the map of the servers or Citizen X. It tethers what’s done to our digital components to our digital extensions to the earth. The law doesn’t draw borders around the data or around us. It acknowledges that on the internet, an individual and her data are global. The borders in fact are being drawn in the private sector around the corporations. The law’s extraterritorial reach makes sure that they can’t just move their tax base offshore and get out of it. It’s about us.

The problem with the term Data Subject is that it sounds really sinister. It sounds feudal– are we subjects or are we citizens? I think that the sinister aspect says a lot about this sector, the tech sector that is still dominated by a handful of huge multinational companies. The term “subject” conveys a lack of agency, and that we are entities to whom things are being done through the medium of our personal information. The Cambridge Analytic debacle comes to mind.

It’s a really tricky category because we can be exploited without even knowing it–like, if you kick my data, it’s not going to hurt me. It doesn’t hurt until you’re really, really screwed, like when your identity gets stolen. Our data is sort of like a phantom limb or a fourth dimension of ourselves. I think that we’re having a really hard time figuring out how to relate to that. Governments don’t know how to relate to where it is, and we don’t really know how to relate to what is being done to it.

What does it mean to be a Data Subject of, not just of Europe but of Facebook or Google? It sounds a lot like being a serf, and as it so happens there has been quite a lot of commentary in scholarship around this idea of “tech feudalism.” One of the articles is in Wired, in which a security consultant named Bruce Schneier wrote that large tech companies “are becoming our feudal lords and we are becoming their vassals.”

He was talking about cybersecurity and how these companies purport to protect us, but the analogy I think holds up across the board just as imperial subjects and to answer to monarchs reigning both over the law and the land and feudal laborers sowed the seeds in exchange for protection and food and not wages but housing. We also live, work and play on platforms designed and run by these technological overlords.

The double entendre in data subjects, whether it’s intentional or not, is really revelatory because it acknowledges the hegemonic power of the tech companies. But it is also, and to its credit the GDPR tries to do this, attempting to return some personal sovereignty to the clients of these companies–us, the people.

We’ve been through some examples of how data is special, how it can be split up, fragmented, multiplied, dispersed. It can be in multiple places at once. We don’t really know what’s being done to it, and that you can be a citizen of the U.S., a resident of Japan and a European data subject at the same time. The question is how this squares with old ideas about citizenship and nationhood and whether our societies and our legal structures will choose to go back to an old feudal conception of citizenship and belonging or find new creative ways to belong to a nation in the world and online. We can have the Theresa May version or we can have the Gary Davis version. We can have the Henley & Partner’s version or we can have the John Perry Barlow version. Ideally, we’ll come up with some better ones because none of these has really panned out.

We’re seeing the battle between internationalism and nationalism play out around where data has to live. There is an impulse if you’re a nationalist head of state to say, “Well, my citizens have to store their data in my country within its territorial borders.” Even though this is absurd, there’s no way to know if there’s a copy of it in Kazakhstan. You can make a law that requires citizen data to be stored in the country. Russia has passed a law like this, and China has passed a similar law compelling corporations to keep their data in the country.

It’s had some effects. Google moved some servers to Russia in 2015 to comply with the Russian law. China is in a trade war so we don’t really know how that’s going to turn out, but it’s not without its problems. Human Rights Watch calls these laws taking Big Brother to a new level because again when you have data, when you have the infrastructure of the data in your country, you can surveil it much more easily.

All of these show how deeply colonized the Internet is and how our conversations about digital citizenship, sovereignty and law are a part of a bigger question. Do we want an open world with open borders, open data and open citizenship, or do we want a world of walls and firewalls?

It’s not surprising to me that Russia and China, two deeply nationalist states, are also leading this territorialization initiative. It’s also not surprising that the European Union has tried to universalize its version of privacy as a block rather than individual states. Again, we’re seeing these competing visions of how the world should be organized and run, and it’s not entirely clear who’s going to win.


Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a Senior Editor at The Nation and a journalist based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesNew York Magazine, the London Review of Books, and other publications. She has worked as an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a general news and business reporter for Reuters. Atossa grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where she returned for a master’s program in investigative reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @atossaaraxia

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