Digital sovereignty and internet fragmentation

27 Nov 2019 15:00h - 16:30h

Event report

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Tensions are rising between the view of a global Internet and state tendencies to invoke sovereignty in cyberspace. Mr William Drake (University of Zurich) introduced the notion of sovereignty in general and mentioned that, just as is the case with national security, invoking sovereignty trumps other political concerns. States have historically invoked sovereignty issues surrounding communications such as postal services and telecommunications. While in the earlier stages of Internet development, the idea of territorialised segments of the Internet was strongly attributed to countries such as China and Russia, Drake noted that Western countries have now also started to invoke digital sovereignty, especially in matters regarding the protection of the privacy of their citizens.

Mr Peixi Xu (Professor at the Communication University of China (CUC)) pointed out that despite how many countries defend the free flow of information, most of them also have built exceptions to it. He noted that in China, exceptions were made under the purvail of social stability, in the EU they were made for privacy reasons, and in the USA for reasons of national security.

The discussion around digital sovereignty showed that there is no common agreement regarding its core features. Picking up points made by Mr Achilles Zaluar (Ambassador of Brasil), Mr Vint Cerf (Google), and co-moderator, Mr Milton Mueller (Georgia Tech Internet Governance Project) hinted at the fact that speakers were alluding to two different understandings of sovereignty. While Cerf’s view is more reflective of the understanding of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of the Internet, in which the Internet was a libertarian space free from governments; Zaluar stated that the Internet was at its core introduced as a sovereign instrument and communication tool for the US army. Zaluar further noted that the demand for digital sovereignty also emanates from the concentration of influence, power, and the profit of a few (mainly American and Chinese) companies. He introduced the idea of breaking down these giant tech conglomerates as was done with the monopolistic companies of the 20th century as part of the solution to stop the fragmentation and sovereignty trend.

Ms Ilona Stadnik (Saint-Petersburg State University) explained that the notion of sovereignty is linked to territorial aspects in which states can exercise their power. She indicated that the invocation of digital sovereignty is yet another attempt at exercising control on cyberspace.

Cerf then highlighted that it is important to specify the layer in which sovereignty is being exercised, considering that the different layers such as certain areas of cable/hardware infrastructure are already clearly assigned to their respective jurisdictions.

Stadnik also noted that there is a tendency to establish parallels to the understanding of cyberspace as global commons such as the oceans or outer space. However, according to her, those parallels fall short of recognising the interconnectedness that the Internet has with nods all over the world and the effect that it has on all states. Mueller on the other hand, pointed to his essay in which he considers the advantages of viewing the Internet as a global commons. Nonetheless, the speakers concurred that there is a necessity to create a framework which will avoid the fragmentation of the Internet into different splinternets. In that regard, Mr Alexander Isavnin (RosKomSvoboda, Russia) presented the effects of Russia’s RuNet law through which the Russian Federation will be able to exercise sovereign rights on Internet traffic within the country. Ms Mona Badran (Cairo University) also emphasised the dangers of data localisation as a source of Internet fragmentation and offered an analysis according to which regulations such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and GDPR-inspired laws are considered as conditional flows of data. Despite disagreeing with Badran’s perception of the GDPR as potentially contributing to Internet fragmentation, Ms Lise Fuhr (Director General, ETNO) emphasised the importance of introducing free flow of data provisions into trade agreements.

In general, international law was viewed as a promising way to avoid contradictory national regulations which would seriously affect the global nature of the Internet. However, there seems to be little consensus over what type of regulation should be considered as an exercise of sovereignty in cyberspace and what level of exercise is tolerable without affecting the global nature of the Internet.

By Cedric Amon