Internet Sovereignty

The argument for an internet with borders

Liam Hartley
Digital Diplomacy

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The internet inspired us to imagine a world without borders, where data could be shared freely amongst states and everyone was treated equally.

However, the reality of a borderless internet has pushed China, Russia and America into a new cold war. China and Russia have tarnished the definition of ‘internet sovereignty’ with their totalitarian laws and bills, whilst America’s first amendment has had ramifications in every corner of the world.

The global internet is undermining the sovereignty of any country that fails to realise the crux of the problem, a cyberspace without government.

Cyberspace Without Government

The foundations of the internet were built on American soil. They were built by Americans who dreamed of a utopian cyberspace. Even the phrase ‘cyberspace’ came from an American who was one of the most influential writers for Wired, John Barlow.

John Perry Barlow in black and white, looking youthful and healthy
John Perry Barlow (source)

Barlow’s most famous piece of work (A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace) was a direct reply to America’s Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act included a provision to attempt to regulate pornographic material on the internet.

Barlow saw this as a threat to the fundamental freedoms of the internet and addressed his government in this short declaration:

“You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks.” — John Barlow 1996

This declaration was shared extensively and reflects the freedom-loving spirits of the internets' founding fathers.

Since Barlow’s declaration was published over twenty years ago, the number of users on the internet has increased from approximately 36 million to almost 5 billion. This exponential growth in users has not been paralleled with exponential growth in regulation.

A chart which shows the exponential growth internet users over time
Global Internet Users 1993–2018 (source)

The internet is a series of cables (tubes) that run all over the world. These cables lead to services providers, which route traffic to servers, which hosts the website that you’ve entered into your browser. The server could be hosting this website anywhere in the world, potentially in a country with laws that are vastly different from those of your own country.

The fundamentals of the internet (source)

The Laws of the Global Internet

The internet has been infamously under-regulated for a very long time and we’re currently living in the Wild West era of the internet and data. Some companies have been reaping huge profits by gathering an abundance of data about their customers (the customers being product they sell to advertisers) in this unregulated cyberspace.

The Patriot Act

One of the most controversial laws surrounding the treatment of data is the Patriot Act. The Act was signed by George W. Bush shortly after 9/11 as a response to the tragedy.

“It will improve our nation’s security while we safeguard the civil liberties of our people.” — George W. Bush 2006

The American government claimed that this Act was to protect its citizens from terrorists. In reality, it allowed America to become a surveillance state, allowing the government to legally look at any conversation that took place online.

A protestor holds a sign which reads ‘The “Patriot” Act is Watching You’
2015 Protests Against the Patriot Act (source)

Whilst this is American law, the next point is key:

The Patriot Act applies to any data (conversations included) that is storied in America. This includes the servers which host your favourite American websites.

The Wikipedia entry for The Patriot Act
The Patriot Act (source)

Therefore, this pervasive Act doesn’t only affect the citizens of America, but literally billions of other people who visit American websites on a daily basis.

At any moment in time, their (your) data and conversations could be legally seized by the American Government. For those of us that are not American, we have had our sovereignty taken away from us by a foreign government.

A candid photo of Edward Snowden in black and white
Edward Snowden (source)

Last month the US court of appeals ruled that this programme of mass surveillance was unlawful and Donald Trump is considering a pardon for Edward Snowden (the whistleblower of the surveillance program who lives in exile in Russia).

The Patriot Act currently remains expired as of July 2020 (despite repeated attempts from Congress to further extend the Act).

GDPR

If you live in the European Union (EU) then you should consider yourself lucky that you live within the jurisdiction with some of the most modern data protection and privacy laws. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was implemented in May 2018 and has forced companies to reconsider how they handle European data.

The Wikipedia entry for GDPR
General Data Protection Regulation (source)

Subsequent to the introduction of GDPR, Facebook argued that they may pull out of the EU altogether when the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that Facebook must restrict the data that is sent from the EU to the US. The original complaint was made in 2014 in the wake of the facts revealed by Edward Snowden.

An excellent (long) conversation with Edward Snowden (source)

The Western Threat

American laws impact the entire world as a result of the fundamental architecture of the internet and a lack of regulation from governments. The internet has remained mostly free and independent since John Barlow wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. This lack of regulation is beginning to take its toll on humanity.

Social Media

Social media is fundamentally broken. It runs on a business model that encourages companies to make addictive products, which ultimately divide us in the interest of shareholder profits and growth. American social media giants operate gleefully in this borderless internet, as they only need to keep one government onside, the American government.

Mark Zuckerberg testifies to Congress in 2018 (source)

Other governments simply have to sit back and read to the latest T&Cs which American social media companies give to them. Facebook’s head of policy, Nick Clegg (formerly Britain’s deputy Prime Minister), gave a speech last year where he effectively delivered the rules for political advertising for the upcoming British elections in 2019.

“…we do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.” — Nick Clegg 2019

Sorry, what?

Nick Clegg in a suit and tie
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Head of Policy (source)

I don’t think that there has been a single time in history where a representative from a private company (that resides in a different country) has laid out the advertising rules for other countries' upcoming elections.

Populism

It’s also no coincidence that the rise in populism that we’ve seen all over the world has paralleled social media’s exponential rise in popularity.

A protestor holds a Brazillian flag on the streets of Brazil wearing a Trump mask
A Jair Bolosonaro supporter wearing a Trump mask after Jair’s victory (source)

These modern populist leaders have deepened corruption, eroded individual rights and are tearing apart the foundations of democracy. It only takes one extreme populist leader to become a ruthless dictator to change the World as we know it for the worse.

The Eastern Threat

Whilst western laws may have indirectly spread far across the globe due to the global internet, there are two countries that have taken an active role in preventing American law from affecting their citizens and have subsequently retained their sovereignty.

Xi holds his hands together for Putin with their respective flags in the background
Putin and Xi (source)

Russia and China

After the Russian interference in America’s 2016 presidential election, America promised to retaliate. This prompted Putin to increase his cyber-security capabilities and to bring in new laws to further extend his power.

The Russian government now enjoys its own bordered internet where they are protected from foreign interference in domestic ‘elections’, much to the dismay of Russia’s people who are being silenced at every corner if they oppose their leader.

2019 protests in Russia against the upcoming changes in the regulation of the internet (source)

This model reflects what happened in China decades ago with The Great Firewall of China.

China has no problem with preventing American laws from leaking into their borders because they have invested heavily in their IT infrastructure. This affronts them the power and technological defenses to protect themselves from this threat.

The New Cold War

China is engaged in a cold war of technology with America — and China is winning. China has patented more than twice as many technologies as America in 2018 and now accounts for over 46% of patent filings globally.

An infographic which highlights all of the different features within WeChat
All of the functions that WeChat offers (source, great read)

Western apps lag behind their eastern counterparts in user experience as they copy their designs years later.

  • Eastern applications have perfected the ‘mono-app’, where one application (e.g. WeChat) can satisfy many user requirements in one place.
  • In-app payments have been common in apps in China for far longer than they have in the west.
Bloomberg Business week cover for an article which exposed the tiny spyware chips that were planted in iPhones (source)

Both countries have also banned software and hardware developed by the other over fears of the other obtaining excessive data or to protect their sovereignty.

  • Google and YouTube are banned in China after being unable to comply with the government's censorship requirements.
  • A lot of websites are banned in China over similar concerns.
  • Huawei’s hardware has been banned all over the west due to national security concerns.
  • TikTok has been in the firing line over concerns regarding western data feeding Chinese algorithms.

Whilst the Cold War came to an end with the Space Race and the Soviet Union collapsed under its own internal problems, there is no clear end in sight for this cold war. This time it is the west that is on the verge of an internal crisis.

Donald Trump holds a Bible outside of a church oppoisite the White House
Donald Trump orders protestors to be gassed for a photo opportunity (source)

It’s crazy that I’m writing this on the cusp of a presidential election where the current American president refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

True Internet Sovereignty

I’d like you to imagine a different internet. An internet with borders, where governments set national laws that respect the culture of their respective state.

Bill Clinton infamously said that controlling the internet was like ‘trying to nail jello to the wall’. This is exactly what China has managed to do.

Zhu Rongji and Bill Clinton lean in to talk to one another with their respecitve flags in the background
Zhu Rongji and Bill Clinton in 1997 (source)

The phrase ‘Internet Sovereignty’ has a lot of negative connotations attached to it because of how Russia and China have used it to control their people. The phrase was first popularised in a white paper released by the CCP which was titled ‘The Internet in China’.

“Within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The Internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.” — The Internet in China, 2010

This statement might seem quite totalitarian. However, if it was being said by a government that didn’t make us laugh when the same white paper says things like:

“Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.”

Then it would be seen as being within our national interest economically, defensively and socially.

The Benefits

I believe that a borderless internet is the crux of many problems that we are facing with technology in the west today. The Internet sovereignty initiative would help tackle:

  • Election Manipulation by Foreign Powers — governments would need to invest in cybersecurity to create these borders effectively
  • Tax Avoidance — it’s currently almost impossible to tax large technology companies fairly when they operate outside of the respective jurisdiction
  • Fake News — companies would be mandated by law to combat the problem as seen fit by the respective governments
  • Slow Internet Speeds — this is no joke when COVID has accelerated our transition to an online work/school environment
  • Unemployment — the investment into the infrastructure and industry would help create new jobs for the respective country

Readers may be apprehensive and believe that an internet with borders would only help manifest more populism and more totalitarianism. However, it is the fundamental culture of the CCP that has created a totalitarian internet, which silences its opposition, spies on its citizens and takes entire regions offline.

We don’t need an internet with borders to enable any of the above. America has effectively spied on the entire world with the Patriot Act and they have the most accessible internet in the world.

A large collection of different countrires flags as seen from above
(source)

The idea of a global civilization is a beautiful one.

Unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect every country in the world to abandon their language, heritage, currency and land in pursuit of this ambition. Our cultures are vastly different and they need to be respected to enable them to thrive. Not everyone believes in the first amendment as passionately as America does.

Summary

We live in a world of borders, which communicate, learn, work and develop alongside borderless technologies. The laws of the western superpowers are spilling beyond their borders with devastating consequences.

I fear that if we do not act upon these issues with appropriate regulation, claiming our internet sovereignty, then we will continue to be at the mercy of lawmakers in other countries until we reach a breaking point.

This doesn’t mean that global communities will cease to exist, but that internet sovereignty will allow everyone to enjoy a more just cyberspace, which respects the appropriate independence of foreign cultures and governments.

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