E-Sovereignty: Internet Governance and National Boundaries

Posted by: Jeremiah Chin


icann_logo_0The Internet is praised for its ability to facilitate communication across physical boundaries, allowing people to instantaneously video chat, send e-mail or create websites that can be viewed around the world. Yet as this international communication medium expands, it raises important questions of governance in a digital age. Is cyberspace the final frontier for borders and boundaries that have traditionally defined sovereignty?

Although the Internet was born from a military project funded and controlled by the United States Federal Government, the United States has ceded almost all of its maintenance and regulatory powers to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). In order for the internet to function, there must be some uniform means of coordinating the rapid exchange of information. ICANN acts as the locating service that allows computers to connect in a uniform way by coordinating the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) through a Domain Name System (DNS). The protocols managed by ICANN help you visit sites like Cyberbeartracks by allowing you to input cyberbeartracks.com rather than the complex numbers string that would otherwise lead you here. Although ICANN is now largely independent of United States controls and regulation, ICANN is still a non-profit corporation organized under United States laws, located in California.

After Edward Snowden began to leak information on the United States’ surveillance efforts, internet coordinators like ICANN and Nation-States called for a shift away from United States authority. Brazil, for example, has attempted to localize its citizen’s internet usage and data storage by requiring servers to be placed within the country. Previous proposals to have the United Nations take control of ICANN’s regulatory properties have failed. Both proposals call for decreased actual or apparent authority of the United States, but present serious pitfalls for the future of internet governance.

In essence this dispute is trying to make sense of existing and historical sovereign boundaries in a digital space. Brazil’s desire to localize servers within its physical boundaries is an attempt to assert jurisdiction over the data and servers, which would allow Brazilian courts to rule on the information and how it is used, for better or worse. While allowing each nation to regulate its own internet usage and data storage has intuitive appeal, this option has the potential of sectionalizing the internet and removing the easy communication and transmission mechanisms that currently exist. For nations which engage in censorship, this offers a particularly lucrative means of stopping the spread of certain ideas or cutting off certain forms of communication, rather than having to rely on current strategies like firewalls or simply disconnecting from the internet.

However ICANN is also resistant to attempts to internationalize its powers under the United Nations. Unlike the United Nation’s recognition of states and a select group of Non-Governmental Organizations, ICANN uses a “multistakeholder” model of governance that attempts to decentralize and distribute policies, placing users, corporations, educational institutions, and nation-states on (theoretically) equal footing for the creation of policies and standards. The United Nations on the other hand favors existing governments and has less influence from NGO’s, educational bodies or other stakeholders that are recognized in the current ICANN governance structure. ICANN has therefore tried to balance these competing interests while maintaining the multistakeholder model.

For ICANN much of the current discussion is about maintaining legitimacy. ICANN is already an international body representing many global regions on its Board (though the proportionality of this representation for the world population or internet usage is questionable). Much of the current talk of changes to governance is more about shaming the United States’ monitoring policies. Fractionating the internet would not resolve these issues as it would decrease the power of ICANN to maintain the internet in its entirety, potentially disrupting the cohesiveness of the internet as it stands.

Instead, the solution may be in recognizing ICANN as an NGO independent of the United Nations as its own international governing body that regulates the internet, therefore increasing the independence of ICANN from any state or national government while ensuring an international voice and preserving the Multistakeholder model. The old borders and geographies of sovereignty are more attenuated on the internet as the widespread communication makes it difficult to contain the internet in any specific site without opening up potential jurisdictional issues. Thus recognizing the interconnected, international nature of the internet and elevating ICANN’s authority as a global service may balance the old forms of sovereignty with the emerging digital frontier.


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