Analysis: Three Observations About the Rise of the State in Shaping Cyberspace


Last month commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It was a time when states were so interdependent and borders so porous that some call it the first era of globalization. In fact, immediately prior to World War I, many forecast that interdependence would be the predominant driving force for the foreseeable future, diminishing states’ tendencies toward war and nationalism. World War I immediately halted this extensive global interdependence, in large part due to rising nationalism and the growth of inward-facing policies. On the surface, there seems to be little in common between that era and the current Digital Age. However, the misguided presumption prior to World War I that interdependence would render states’ domestic interests obsolete is at risk of resurfacing in the cyber domain. Given the narrow focus on connectivity during previous waves of interdependence, here are three observations about the role of the state in the Digital Age worth considering:

1) In “borderless” cyberspace, national borders still matter. Similar to perspectives on the growth of interdependence prior to World War I, there is currently an emphasis on the borderless, connected nature of cyberspace and its uniform and omnipresent growth across the globe. While borders – both virtual and physical – have become more porous, the state nevertheless is increasingly impacting the structure and transparency of the Internet. From Russia’s recent expansion of web control to Brazilian-European cooperation for underground cables, there is a growing patchwork approach to the Internet – all guided by national interests to maintain control within state borders.

2) “Data Nationalism” is the new nationalism of the Digital Age. While traditional nationalism still exists, thanks to the information revolution it now manifests in more nuanced ways. “Data nationalism”, where countries seek to maintain control of data within their physical borders, has strong parallels to traditional nationalism. In both cases, nationalism serves as a means to shape and impact a state’s culture and identity. As history has shown, states – and the governments running them – aim to maintain sovereign control of their territory and stay in power. Nationalistic tendencies, especially state preservation, tend to strongly influence the depth and structure of connectivity among people and states. This was true one hundred years ago, and it is true today. States are disparately invoking national legislation and barriers to exert their “data nationalism” within a virtual world, possibly halting the great expansion of access and content that has occurred thus far. Just as nationalism and states’ interests eventually altered the path of the first era of globalization, it is essential to acknowledge the growing role of the state in shaping the Internet during the Digital Age.

3) Although a technical creation, the cyber domain is not immune from the social construct of states’ interests. During each big wave of globalization and technological revolution, the idea that interdependence will triumph and trump individual states’ interests emerges. However, this idea discounts the role of the state in continuing to shape and maintain sovereign control while simultaneously influencing the structure of the newly connected system. This is true even in the cyber realm, which is not immune to the self-interest of states. From the great firewall of China to various regulations over content in Western European countries to Internet blackouts in Venezuela, states are increasingly leveraging their power to influence Internet access and control data and content within their borders. This has led to a growing discussion of the “Splinternet” or Balkanization of the Internet, which refers to the disparate patchwork of national policies and regulations emerging globally. Running counter to the ideals of openness and transparency on which the Internet was founded, it comes as no surprise to international relations scholars that states would seek to control (as best as possible) the cyber domain.

The role of self-interested states has largely been absent from discussions pertaining to the future of the Internet. Fortunately, there is a growing dialogue on the impact of national barriers and disparate national legislation on the Internet’s evolution. A recent article in The Atlantic reflects on the growing fractionalization of the Internet, and is reminiscent of earlier eras’ articles about the hub-and-spoke system of international trade. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll highlights concern over the potential fractionalization of the Internet due to state intervention. As we continue to consider how the Internet will evolve and how policymakers will respond to an increasingly interconnected digital domain, we must not ignore the inherent tendency of states to demarcate both physical and virtual control within their sovereign borders.