The Coming Age of Internet Sovereignty?

01/10/2013 07:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2013

In few places on Earth is censorship undertaken more vigorously than it is in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Take At one level,, allegedly the world's largest Chinese online bookstore, resembles its American counterpart, selling everything from the Twilight series to Battlestar Galactica. But dig deeper, and differences multiply. A search in early 2011 revealed only a single hit for "human rights in China": Alexandra Harney's The China Price. Perhaps most telling was a query conducted by the New York Times in 2010 for "censorship" and "China," that returned a result for a book entitled, When China Rules the World.

What does such censorship mean for the rest of the world's Internet users? If the worst predictions of the recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) are correct, the Internet experience in more countries could resemble that of China, threatening the dawn of a new age of Internet sovereignty. But such dire warnings may be simplistic and overblown.

The WCIT was held under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is a UN body responsible for managing its namesake -- information and telecommunication technologies. In recent years, the ITU has moved towards the center of a debate about how the Internet should be managed, offering an institutional alternative to the collection of private sector actors, such as ICANN, that largely manage the Internet today. Ahead of the WCIT, the secretary general of the ITU, Hamadoun Touré, assured stakeholders that the ITU was not interested in making a power grab for Internet governance. But things turned out differently.

During the WCIT, 193 countries worked to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which were written in 1988 to "define the general principles for the provision and operation of international telecommunications." Vinton Cerf, the "Father of the Internet," told Congress that new ITRs could undermine the Internet's openness and "lead to 'top-down control dictated by government.'" Numerous U.S. congressional representatives expressed similar sentiments.

To some degree, these concerns seem to have been born out. Eighty-nine countries signed the WCIT final resolution that on the one hand embraces multilstakeholder governance, but on the other determines that "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing Internet." This language seems to herald a growing state-centric view of cyberspace held by many nations, especially in Asia (with the notable exceptions of India, Japan, and Australia) and Africa. Such a view could lead to more regulations on content -- what we generally think of as censorship -- among other restrictions. Indeed, there is a key distinction between how the United States and other countries, such as China, claim to view cyberspace - but the situation is not as black and white as it may first appear.

The United States has a stated policy of promoting a single global networked commons where freedom of speech is sacrosanct -- even as the White House has sought the ability to monitor that speech through stepped up wiretapping. Indeed, the Obama administration has promoted Internet freedom abroad, but content is not insulated at home. For example, Google publishes information about governments that have requested information about its users or asked it to remove content. According to a June 2012 Global Transparency Report, between July and December 2011, Google received 1,000 such requests and complied with over half of them. These included Western democracies like Spain, Poland, and the United States, the latter of which it reportedly submitted more requests than any other country.

China, on the other hand, along with many other nations, is viewed as building digital barriers in the name of Internet sovereignty. Consider the case of Iran, which reportedly is building a national network detached from the global Internet to enhance governmental control of information and potentially better guard against cyber attacks. And while Iran's efforts are more extreme than many nations, it is not alone. Ethiopia, Cuba, and more than 40 other nations now routinely monitor Internet traffic. These nations are part of a growing club that seems to balk at the notion of Internet freedom.

But this debate between Internet freedom and sovereignty is an oversimplification and ultimately a false choice. Instead of a black and white comparison, what may be more accurate is investigating the 50 (or potentially 193) shades of gray that comprise the complexion of global Internet regulations to find common ground. Even if we are not heading for an age of outright Internet balkanization, we may be in for a period of greater state involvement in Internet governance. The open questions are: what costs will this impose in terms of innovation and interconnectedness, and how can we manage the growing reach of the leviathan to minimize distortions and protect civil liberties?

The United States contributes to this debate by trumpeting Internet freedom and the benefits of a more decentralized approach to Internet governance. These calls were not heeded at the WCIT, but that does not mean that it is time to disband the ITU. At most, the non-binding WCIT resolution helps provide legal cover for countries that are already taking a heavier hand in Internet governance. This trend would not stop with the demise of the ITU. Yet it is also true that the fact that the ITU is a state-centric UN organization with a circumscribed role for the private sector that militates against expanding its scope.

An opportunity to instill the Internet freedom agenda may have been missed at the WCIT, but that does not mean that the Internet as we know it is over. Instead, it should be taken as a call to action for Western nations, including the United States, to practice what we preach, and to work with our partners around the world to build consensus on the future of Internet governance in an increasingly multipolar world.

Scott Shackelford is an Assistant Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is also a fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, and the author of the forthcoming book, Managing Cyber Attacks in International Law, Business and Relations: In Search of Cyber Peace.