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The prefixes e‑ / virtual / cyber / digital / net are used to describe various ICT/Internet developments. Typically, they are used interchangeably. Each prefix describes the Internet phenomenon.

Yet, we tend to use e‑ for commerce, cyber for crime and security, digital for development divides, and virtual for currencies, such as Bitcoin. Usage patterns have started to emerge. While in our everyday language, the choice of prefixes e‑/virtual/cyber/ digital/net is casual, in Internet policy the use of prefixes has started to attract more
meaning and relevance.
Let’s have a quick look at the etymology of these terms and the way they are used in Internet policy.
The etymology of ‘cyber’ goes back to the Ancient Greek meaning of ‘governing’. Cyber came to our time via Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics, dealing with information‑driven governance.15 In 1984, William Gibson coined the word cyber‑space in the science‑fiction novel Neuromancer.

The growth in the use of the prefix ‘cyber’ followed the growth of the Internet. In the late 1990s, almost anything related  to the Internet was ‘cyber’: cybercommunity, cyberlaw, cybersex, cybercrime, cyber‑culture, cyber… If you named anything on the Internet and you had ‘cyber’. In the early 2000s, cyber gradually disappeared from wider use, only remaining alive in security terminology.

Cyber was used to name the 2001 Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention. It is still the only international treaty in the field of Internet security. Today there is the USA’s Cyberspace Strategy, the ITU’s Global Cybersecurity Agenda, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Policy on Cyber Defence, Estonia’s Cyber
Defence Center of Excellence …

Cyberpunk author and Wired columnist Bruce Sterling had this to say:
I think I know why the military calls it ‘cyber’ — it’s because the metaphor of defending a ‘battlespace’ made of ‘cyberspace’ makes it easier for certain contractors to get Pentagon grants. If you call ‘cyberspace’ by the alternate
paradigm of ‘networks, wires, tubes and cables’ then the NSA has already owned that for fifty years and the armed services can’t get a word in.

‘E’ is the abbreviation for ‘electronic’. It got its first and most important use through e‑commerce, as a description of the early commercialization of the Internet. In the EU’s Lisbon Agenda (2000), e‑ was the most frequently used prefix. E‑ was also the main prefix in the WSIS declarations (Geneva 2003; Tunis 2005). The WSIS follow‑up imple‑
mentation is centred on action lines including e‑government, e‑business, e‑learning, e‑health, e‑employment, e‑agriculture, and e‑science. Nonetheless, e‑ is not as present as it used to be. Even the EU has been distancing itself from using e‑ recently.

Today, the EU works on implementing a Digital Single Market Strategy.18 Digital refers to ‘1’ and ‘0’ – two digits which are the basis of whole Internet world. Ultimately, all software programs start with them. In the past, digital was used mainly in development circles to represent the digital divide. During the last few years, digital has
started conquering Internet linguistic space. It is likely to remain the main Internet prefix. Jean‑Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, used the ‘digital’ prefix 10 times in his initial speech at the European Parliament, presenting his policy plan for the five‑year mandate. In addition to the EU, Great Britain now has
digital diplomacy, and an increasing number of diplomatic missions have a dedicated person for digital issues, usually covering them transversally.

Virtual relates to the intangible nature of the Internet. Virtual introduces the ambiguity of being both intangible and, potentially, non‑existent. Virtual reality could be both an intangible reality, (something that cannot be touched) and a reality that does not exist (a false reality). Academics and Internet pioneers used virtual to highlight the
novelty of the Internet, and the emergence of ‘a brave new world’. Virtual, because of its ambiguous meaning, rarely appears in policy language and international documents.

Today, there is truce in the war for prefix dominance. Each prefix has carved its own domain, without a catch‑all domination which, for example, cyber had in the late 1990s. Today, cyber preserves its dominance in security matters. E‑ is still the preferred prefix for business. Digital has evolved from development issue use to wider use by the government sector. Virtual has been virtually abandoned.

 

Source: 7th edition of An Introduction to Internet Governance.
You can download the book using following links:
English version: www.diplomacy.edu/sites/default/files/AnIntroductiontoIG_7th%20edition.pdf
Spanish version: www.diplomacy.edu/sites/default/files/IG2016_7th_ed_ESP.pdf