(2016.04) “All your Internet are Belong to Us”: On Nation States’ Claims of Sovereignty over ICT Architecture and Contents*

Miguelángel Verde Garrido | 13th April 2016

Globalization confronts nation states with unique challenges to their sovereignty, especially regarding their authority over information and communications technologies (ICT). Nation states are increasingly declaring that security and surveillance are the best strategies to deal with transnational and deterritorialized flows of information and communications. As a result, sovereignty is claimed both over technology and over information. In recent years, countries as different as Cuba and Germany have forwarded proposals by which to establish sovereignty over Internet architecture, while other countries such as Russia and China have forwarded proposals through which to establish sovereignty over information itself. Contrary to widespread political discourses and policy recommendations, most proposals that argue for technological and information sovereignty would do little to defend from, for example, the mass surveillance practices deployed by the United States and the United Kingdom. For that reason, further efforts to establish global governance mechanisms would better serve to confront these unique challenges.

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(Photo credit: Imamon | Flickr)

A classical definition of sovereignty is “supreme authority within a territory”. (Philpott, 2010). Classics, in the same manner as tradition, must face the challenge of keeping abreast of changes. Contemporary societies and their governing polities are global(izing) and digital(izing), to a large extent because of continuous developments in information and communications technologies (ICT). The global economy is an example of these changes: the growth and decline of countries’ economies are increasingly interconnected, (The Guardian, 2014), and rely more and more on algorithmic (or automatized) trading as well as digital machine learning-driven technologies. (Institutional Investor, 2014). The vast ICT architecture that enables the real-time computing required for global finance, both public and private, is the Internet: global in scope and constituted by a worldwide network of computers, satellites and undersea fiber-optic cables. (International Business Times, 2014). The very nature of contemporary ICT challenges nation states, which are concerned with ICT development and advancement from an almost strictly national standpoint. As a result, nation states are particularly challenged in their understanding of the extent to which they can claim sovereignty over information and communications that are global in nature.

Nation states are confronted with droves of transnational and deterritorialized flows of information and communications circulating through a decentralized architecture that spans the globe. (Mowlana, 1997: 115). National governments refer, in their discourses, to ICT architecture and its content as a matter of national security at an intensifying rate. (Deibert, 2011: 24). These discourses are not only the result of the quickening of developments in technology, but also a response to revelations about the scope of the mass surveillance deployed by the United States of America (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), as well as by other countries. Whistleblower Edward Snowden brought to global public attention the extent of the espionage scandal, which has led a number of nation states and supra-national institutions to prioritize the privacy of their institutions’ and citizens’ communications. The United Nations (UN) has emphatically condemned US and UK mass surveillance as a violation not only of international law, but also of fundamental human rights. (United Nations Special Rapporteur Emmerson, 2014).

National governments are deploying a variety of discourses, policies, and practices in order to constrain what is global to the national level. Consequently, nation states claim sovereignty over: 1) the technological architecture that enables these transnational flows, and/or 2) the flows of information and communications themselves. Academic literature, public policy, and expert research and analyses refer to these claims of “supreme authority” over ICT and its content as: 1) technological sovereignty, and 2) information sovereignty. These claims of sovereignty can often overlap, since the differences between them are not so clear-cut.

The Science Council of Canada was already debating technological sovereignty in the late 1970s. (Vardalas, 2001: 306). During the late 1990s and early 2000s, academics continued the debate. (Kobrin, 1997; Taylor, 2003). Perritt (1997) contested the denouncement that the Internet threatens sovereignty by arguing that, within the discipline of international relations, only neorealist theory reflected this standpoint – neoliberal theory, on the contrary, welcomed the Internet’s potential for strengthening national and global governance. (p. 425). Recent years have witnessed countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, and China deploying a discourse that emphasizes technological sovereignty over ICT. (CNET, 2009; Pravda, 2012). Germany and, because of the country’s proposals, the European Union (EU), are deploying a similar discourse regarding digitality. (Bohnen Kallmorgen & Partner, 2013: 2). Hence, the EU has discussed the benefits of the development of a Europe-based cloud, often referred to as the ‘Schengen Cloud’. (New York Times, 2013). In contrast, Brazil, in April 2014, invited 12 other nation states and 12 organizations that represent Internet stakeholders to their NETmundial meeting, which focused on international digital governance. (BBC, 2014).

Nation states have reclaimed sovereignty over information with each and every significant change to the technologies enabling their communication. (Perritt, 1998: 425-426). Mody (2003) argued that the constant challenge to nation states’ attempts to securitize information evidences why sovereignty is more a claim than an achievement. (p. 154). A recent trend in global politics, the securitization of information within international politico-economic blocs, is telling in this regard. Russia, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, during September 2011, presented a UN resolution on a proposed code of conduct, which would protect national sovereignty over ICT content and strengthen information security. The proposal “could give any state the right to censor or block international communications for almost any reason”; furthermore, it “could even be used for trade protectionism in cultural industries”. (Internet Governance Project, 2011). While Russia continues strengthening its ‘digital sovereignty’ through the expansion of restrictive Internet policies as well as the deployment of informational warfare as a strategy toward Ukraine and other topics, (Nocetti, 2014), China (during a BRICS summit with 11 South American countries) has called for the establishment of a collective international Internet governance system, which would ensure that no nation states could violate the ‘cyberspace sovereignty’ of another. (China Daily, 2014).

Notwithstanding, recent technical and policy-based analyses of sovereign proposals over technology and information – for example, proposals concerning national emails, construction of more undersea cables, localized routing of data, subsidized national ICT industries, and localization of stored data – evidence that these would mostly lead to a false sense of security and, more vexingly, to a reduction of the openness of the Internet as well as the establishment of precedents for authoritarian restrictions. (Maurer et al., 2014: 15-18; 20-21). Among these proposals, only the expansion of encryption tools can provide more protection to privacy without reducing the Internet’s flow of information and communications. (idem: 19-20). For these reasons, nation states’ recent attempts to govern contemporary ICT architecture and content through sovereign claims reflect that a better solution may be counterintuitive to the notion of sovereignty: authority over information and communications within an open Internet can only be retained by engaging with other states as well as with a plurality of other stakeholders – which include international institutions, global corporations, non-governmental organizations, and civil societies themselves.

Nation states would be better served by committing their efforts to the establishment of global governance mechanisms. These could ensure international standards and legislation favorable to the entirety of the international community, and not only to these countries’ temporary national governments. Merely sovereign understandings of technology and information could lead, almost inexorably, to a fragmented smorgasbord of Intranets, detrimental to novel and innovative forms of glocalized economy, politics, and culture in nation states – which are thriving exactly because of the globe-spanning architecture and flow of information that is the Internet, and not because “all our Internet are belong to them”.

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* This blog post’s title references a pun on a viral Internet culture catchphrase: “All your base are belong to us”, found in the introduction to the 1989 video-game Zero Wing. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, a screen shot of the catchphrase became popular among certain Internet communities. Coinciding with greater availability of image-editing software, creative versions – as well as the original – spread virally and even spilled offline. The catchphrase was widely reported in mainstream media as an early example of what is nowadays called an ‘Internet meme’. “All your base are belong to us” would give rise to thousands of images over time. This blog post’s title refers to a particular version from 2008, featured above, which shows an iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer while declaring: “All your data are belong to us”.