Digital national sovereignty and Internet fragmentation – Flash 06 2019

From EuroDIG Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

19 June 2019 | 16:45-17:15 | EVEREST 1 & 2
Consolidated programme 2019 overview

Session teaser

The tension between national digital sovereignty and the trans-territorial Internet is probably the single most overarching Internet governance issue today. The purpose of this 30 minute flash session is draw attention to the new discourse and practice of national sovereignty over cyberspace and to consider its broad implications for Internet openness vs. fragmentation.

Session description

National sovereignty is the core organizing principle of the international political system. Because national sovereignty is bounded by territory, states’ authority and claims of control stop at their borders. The Internet, in contrast, is transnational in scope and provides the potential for borderless connectivity. Thus many aspects of Internet governance and digital policy more generally have been relying on multistakeholder cooperation and cross-border operations in which states collaborate with stakeholders.

Today, in a context of growing security concerns and the transition to a global digital economy, efforts to project states’ territorial control into cyberspace and onto all things digital are gathering momentum. Across the world, governments of many political complexions are considering or have adopted broad policy frameworks they say are necessary to maintain what they variously describe as cyber, data, informational, digital, or technological sovereignty. These have been implemented via such measures as forced data localization, barriers to cross-border data flows, routing and surveillance requirements, digital industrial policies and trade protectionism, and censorship and blocking of classes of data flows or Internet-based platforms. Russia and China provide especially robust examples of such state-led approaches, but many other governments also are assessing and implementing variations suited to their local conditions.

Democratically grounded but state-led versions have been proposed in a variety of European policy discussions, both amongst governments and engaged stakeholders. What might be the costs and benefits for Europe if such policy frameworks take hold and proliferate? How would state-led digital national sovereignty programs fit with the objectives of the EU’s Digital Single Market and its international obligations with respect to human rights, international trade, the collective management of core Internet resources, and other global issues directly relevant to Internet governance? Above all, what would their proliferation mean for the open Internet ideal, the attenuation and management of Internet fragmentation, and the evolution of the global digital economy? Are we moving, as many analysts believe, toward a world where the Internet will become effectively divided between distinct regional varieties of digital capitalism characterized by differing forms of state/society relations and levels of user empowerment?

There are a range of pressing issues to consider, such as:

1. The nature of national sovereignty and its extension to 'digital sovereignty' or ‘cyberspace sovereignty’:

  • Is digital national sovereignty compatible with the globalized access provided by the Internet protocols? What is gained and what is lost by trying to make cyberspace conform to principles of territorial sovereignty?
  • How does sovereignty in cyberspace relate to/differ from traditional notions of sovereignty that shaped international communications policy since the 1850s?
  • Why and how are countries trying to create "national Internets?" Are these efforts compatible with a global internet or will they lead to fragmentation of the infrastructure or the services and processes that it supports?

2. Effects of digital digital sovereignty:

  • How do attempts by some countries to create a "sovereign Internet" affect the human rights of Internet users?
  • How do national boundaries on data flows affect economic development, competition and efficiency in the global digital economy?
  • How does sovereignty in cyberspace affect the security and privacy of Internet users?
  • How do they impact companies and organizations of all sizes and individual that seek to operate locally and globally? Are they consistent with international trade and other multilateral obligations?

3. Global governance responses:

  • What blend of institutional settings would be useful in addressing the conflicts engendered by statist digital sovereignty practices? What would be the role of e.g. security arrangements, international trade agreements, international privacy agreements, MLATs and other jurisidiction-related agreements, and so on?
  • Is there any role in this discussion for multistakeholder cooperation, or is sovereignty a matter on which only states should engage? If there is a role, how could this be constructed?

The organizers of course would welcome any inputs from EuroDIG colleagues interested in making this a productive and useful half hour.


In the first half of the session the organizers will provide brief background and framing questions to stimulate debate. In the second half we hope for a lively, interactive and probing (if concise) discussion with all participants that will highlight pressing issues and future possibilities for dialogue. The participants may wish to follow up by continuing the discussion at the Hague and in other venues, such as the global IGF to be held in Berlin in November. A longer and more in depth roundtable discussion will be held there,

Further reading

Other background materials will be shared as well as the conference date approaches.


The session will be organized and led by:

  • William J. Drake (University of Zurich)
  • Wolfgang Kleinwächter (European Summer School on Internet Governance)
  • Anriette Esterhuysen (Association for Progressive Communications)