Digital Sovereignty: Multi-Stakeholder vs. Beggar-Thy-Neighbor Digital Futures

What do Yeti, ICANN, and BRICs have in common? They are emblematic of the growing international jockeying for power to shape the global digital order. Absent a global cyber regime, nation-states continue to pursue self-interested international and domestic policies, which has produced the evolving movement toward digital sovereignty.

While an open and free internet is consistent with many states' interests, this is far from universally true. Many states' policies are more so reminiscent of beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies, wherein states pursue their own self-interested policies that worsen the situation of other states. To counter this growth of autarkic digital policies, there have been silent, but potentially impactful movements by the US to slowly assert a multi-stakeholder model. If history is any guide, it will likely take a major shock to the system to truly embed the norms the US continues to push forth. Until then, we’re likely to continue to see states asserting their digital sovereignty in ways that not only impact global connectivity, but also have strong implications on international commerce, privacy, and security.


A Beggar-Thy-Neighbor Digital World Order

The latest wave of digital sovereignty is disguised as a push for privacy. China is leading the way in this realm, balancing domestic censorship, data leaks, and a quiet but growing crackdown on foreign tech companies. This push for cyber sovereignty is instigated by the need to control information and limit foreign competition. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) – China’s Internet watchdog – released an announcement in January soliciting input on a proposal to increase censorship of news outlets, emphasizing privacy protection of personally identifiable information. The CAC also leads the push for more regulations on international companies, demanding source code and other IP as the price to pay for access to China’s enormous market. The CAC controls censorship and has been blamed for offensive attacks against US companies, including a public allegation by, a non-profit organization fighting for online freedom in China. This is the same organization that was at the center of the GitHub attacks in April 2015.

China has global aspirations for their model as well, laying the groundwork for alternatives to the modern Internet. Russian and Chinese officials met last month to discuss digital strategy, just the latest in their push for digital sovereignty, with Russia seeking to learn from and augment its information control similar to the Great Firewall. Brazil is also taking a page from this playbook, with growing government involvement in information control, such as blocking the messaging platform, WhatsApp. These initiatives focused on information control are part of a global effort to shape the digital order. With India’s ascent to lead the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa), discussion among the group is increasingly dominated by ways to shape the global digital order. While it remains a group with diverse interests, they nevertheless seek a role in shaping the future of the Internet. Similarly, there are smaller efforts such as Project Yeti that aspires to redirect traffic from the Internet to an alternate root. It is driven largely by technical considerations, as well as to counter the risk of Western surveillance. The Beijing Internet Institute runs Project Yeti, in conjunction with a Japan-based group and computer scientists.


Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives

From the perspective of many regional powers, the US government (via the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN)  and US companies (via their technology) – control the Internet. In an attempt to offset these negative perceptions and to implement global digital norms, the US continues to seek ways to shape the digital world order toward a free and open multi-stakeholder model. Relinquishing control of ICANN is a first step toward this model. Currently reporting to the US Department of Commerce, ICANN controls naming conventions, matching domains and IP addresses. However, in 2014, President Obama announced that ICANN will transition this role to a global, private group. This is set to occur in September 2016. As part of this outreach to the global community, ICANN will host a global meeting in Hyderabad, India, in November.

The US also continues to push forth this multi-stakeholder model at the UN’s Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). A new report by the GGE and agreed upon by 20 governments, including the US, China, and Russia, proposes a range of international norms for cyber activity. Clearly, this ties into other ongoing discussions on the defining cyber acts of war, but focuses more so on those activities that fall below the threshold of use of force, such as espionage and IP theft. With so many distinct interests, there are numerous collective actions problem with international cooperation and shaping these norms. That said, the United State’s push for global norms and a multi-stakeholder model is emblematic of its global campaign to counter perceptions of its hegemonic control of the internet.


The Way Ahead

While some predict the Internet to approach global saturation by 2020, these projections are largely based on an uninterrupted current trajectory. Despite decades of Internet growth, there is momentum for greater control of the Internet. Many regional powers are increasingly looking to digital sovereignty as a means to maintain greater domestic control and exert global influence. The US is taking steps to counter this movement with a multi-stakeholder model, but it relies on global cooperation which remains a challenge. This jockeying of power between these two competing perspectives is only likely to grow, and has great implications for the future of the global digital order.