SplInternet: What happens if ‘network sovereignty’ prevails

28 Nov 2019 10:35h - 11:35h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]


What threats and dangers are there to the ‘splinternet’ – the global Internet split into a number of smaller, closed ones? What attractions do some states find in closing down the Internet at its borders in order to control people? With these two questionsand the introduction of the 10 Democratic Principles for an Open Internet prepared by the Open Internet for Democracy, Mr Mark Nelson (Center for International Media Assistance) has set the stage for discussion.


The Internet is a disruptive technology which has changed the centralised control of communications in nation states, says Mr Walid Al-Saqaf (Södertörn University, Stockholm). The reaction of some states was to try to catch up with the situation and at least impose regulatory measures. However, in the Middle East, national governments have control over Internet service providers – they have ultimate decision-making authority over whether they shutdown the Internet, censor content, or control access, he warned. Al-Saqaf pointed out the positive trend that more and more people are becoming ‘tech savvy’ and know how to circumvent censorship, but governments improves its reaction to that also.


Another point discussed was that once the Internet was created, the very nature of sovereignty was challenged and states have had to adapt. At the beginning, it was assumed that digital space was a pure technological space, regulated only by technological standards, and had nothing to do with the law and legal regimes. However, it was pointed out by Ms Olga Kyryliuk (CEO, The Influencer Platform, Ukraine) that states do in fact have jurisdiction within their territory and the right to impose laws. Yet, it becomes very complicated to form international agreements, especially when states do not have a unanimous approach to Internet regulation. She shared the example of the Ukraine, in which society was divided into two different camps. Some approved the government policy of Internet restrictions and were ready to give up a part of their freedom for the sake of national security. Others stated national security matters, but when you start restricting freedom of expression, you never know where the government will stop.


‘We most likely won’t see the scale of a splinternet as we have seen in China and Russia’, said Mr Kuda Hove (Media Institute of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe), ‘mainly because of the lack of resources to technically cut off the whole country from the global Internet as well as the resources to produce alternative versions of Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and all these popular tools that we are using now’.  In Zimbabwe and Malawi, Internet shutdowns have occurred during significant national events like elections or social uprisings. However, governments are not creating an alternative Internet; instead, they are controlling what is happening on the global Internet by restricting information flows. Sometimes it is reflected in national ICT policies, like in Zimbabwe, to reduce the number of international Internet gateways by 2021. 


A similar event occurred this year in Uganda, where the government tried to reduce the number of IXPs and collapse them into one through imposing a liability on them for content – basically just criminalising the use of ICT, noted Mr Ephraim Percy Kenyanito (Article 19, Kenya). He also confirmed that no plans have been made for an alternative Internet. However, Ugandan ICT Minister suggested the creation of a Ugandan version of Facebook. 


Kyryliuk pointed out that not only authoritarian regimes want to control the Internet, but democracies do as well. Though they differ in methods, they are targeting the same goal. The Internet is interoperable now, but we have nothing like interoperability in international law. ‘Now we have to make a choice to either realign cyberspace along the territorial borders of national jurisdictions as it is happening now; or we have to work collectively and elaborate the international legal framework, which would be regulating different types of digital relationships’. A need is apparent for more diffusion of multilateralism and multistakeholder approaches, since states have normative and law-enforcement power, but civil society has expertise and knowledge. 

By Ilona Stadnik