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What’s today’s policy fashion? Is it cyber, e-, digital, or virtual?

Published on 02 November 2011
Updated on 19 March 2024

FT journalist Maija Palmer wrote in her blog post on the CyberSecurity Conference in London: ‘Even its name (conference) is already out of date, as quaint as calling it the “information superhighway” these days. A roomful of young people, convened as a “Youth Fourm” on the fringe of the conference, were asked if anyone used the world “cyber” any more. No one raised their hands.’

It is a very valid point and it matters! While in the early days, prefixes e-/virtual/cyber/digital were used interchangeably, today they indicate a particular policy approach or belonging to a particular policy circle.

For example, cyber is used mainly in security circles due to the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention, which was adopted 10 years ago. If you can recall, in 2001, the term cyber was the main prefix. Everything was cyber – diplomacy, universities, love, music. Since then, in the strange way of language evolution, cyber has gradually disappeared from public use, but has remained in use in security circles (ITU’s Global Cybersecurity Agenda; NATO’s Cyber defence policy, Estonia’s Cyber Defence Center of Excellence, …)

Fascinated with the ways in which words move in and out of favour, I have followed the evolution of the use of prefixes during the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) process. Back in 2002, the prefix e- was very fashionable, largely because of e-commerce. The first use came from business circles who saw the Internet mainly through commercial lenses. e- was more directly pushed in the policy space. In the EU’s Lisbon Agenda (2000), e- was the most frequently used prefix. It is not suprising that the EU influenced the use of e- at the Pan-European Bucharest Regional Meeting. e- became the main prefix in all WSIS texts, including the final documents documents from WSIS-Geneva (2003) and WSIS-Tunis (2005). WSIS implementation is centred on action lines including e-government, e-business, e-learning, e-health, e-employment, e-agriculture, and e-science.

If you listen carefully, e- is not as present as it used to be. Even the EU has abandoned e- recently, trying, most likely, to distance itself from the failed Lisbon Agenda. Today, digital is fashionable. In the past it was used mainly in development circles to represent the digital divide. Today, the EU has a Digital Agenda for Europe. Great Britain has digital diplomacy. The USA has digital diplomacy but the International Strategy for Cyberspace.

Try to think of what you associate these prefixes with. Is the first association with e- business, cybersecurity, and digital development? And what about virtual? Has it been virtually abandoned?

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