Sovereignty and the ‘Gods’ of the Internet

Globe Communication Innovtion

Radim Polcak and Dan Jerker B. Svantesson discuss how different countries navigate the internet.

Imagine that the Internet is the ocean. This analogy is not particularly far-fetched given how both the Internet and the ocean bind the world together. Indeed, more than once we have seen calls to treat the Internet like the high seas: that is, to treat the Internet like an additional international space akin to the high seas, outer space and Antarctica.

If we view the Internet as the ocean, it would probably be fair to compare the Internet giants – or indeed, Internet ‘gods’ – such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter, to the gods said to control the ocean. In Greek mythology, that would be Poseidon, the Romans would point to Neptune and under Norse mythology, we would point to Njord.

At a first glance this analogy may seem childish. However, just like some countries/peoples sought to control the gods of the ocean (Poseidon, Neptune, Njord, etc.) to in turn control the ocean as such, those countries/peoples that can control the gods of the Internet (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) can, to a great degree, control the Internet. At the same time, it is not in the interest of any of these ‘gods’ to be too tightly controlled by, or associated with, any particular country. After all, where countries/peoples feel that the god of the ocean is favouring another country/people over them, they may well stop believing in that god and adopt their own new god. In the Internet context, we have seen this happening with certain countries favouring, for example, domestic search engines, domestic social media and domestic operative systems over those provided by the American ‘gods of the Internet’.

The usefulness of this analogy does not end here. One of the key reasons Viking Scandinavia turned to Christianity (abandoning Njord, Freja, Thor, etc.) stemmed from the trade benefits that came with joining the Christian world. In a similar manner, countries and people may benefit from adopting the American gods of the Internet with their virtually global reach. This is obvious e.g. in the context of social media. By joining the gigantic Facebook network, your possibilities for cross-border networking are considerably greater than if you join a local social media network exclusive to a small country. But a similar reasoning can perhaps also be applied in other settings. For example, advertising on the Google search engine may give you a geographically far-reaching exposure not attainable via advertisement on a local search engine.

From all this, we are beginning to see the interest matrix of the parties concerned – we see an ecosystem in which state sovereignty is not such an absolute control as it may have been in the past. Countries can obviously benefit substantially from a healthy domestic Internet industry. Most discussion may reasonably be focussed on the economic benefits. However, more broadly, the benefits of having such an industry are not unlike the benefits stemming from a solid domestic arms manufacturing capacity. It provides independence and offers choices. In addition, where a country develops a strong domestic Internet industry that has an international reach, that country is given the power to potentially affect Internet usage in other countries, and indeed to affect those countries as such. Of course, no other country comes close to the success of the US in this regard.

In addition, the above lends itself to the conclusion that, while countries have a significant interest in allowing access to the services provided by foreign Internet giants, that interest may be in conflict with the interest of securing independence. Thus, countries with a weaker relationship to, and lower level of trust in, the country from which an Internet service originates have a stronger reason to block access to that service, or at least encourage or develop alternatives to that service. Here, we may point to the decisions by some countries to avoid hardware and software from certain other countries out of the fear that the products are set up to cater for intelligence-gathering activities by the country of the manufacturer.

Importantly, as the relevant technology – including fundamental matters such as what that technology can and cannot do – are largely in the hands of technology developers rather individual sovereign nation states, only countries with extremely strong determination, and with a lacking concern about their citizens missing out on certain online facilities, are able to exercise a relatively high level of control in respect of Internet technology. They do so, for example, by restricting international Internet communications to flow only through governmentally controlled channels, blocking foreign content and banning some technologies.

This brings us to an important conclusion; that is, the Internet truly challenges traditional thinking on sovereignty. A country may be able to control most technologies used within its territory, e.g. by placing restrictions on the import of certain types of technologies (including hardware); but in the case of the Internet, countries are often forced to accept the technology as is provided, without being able to influence it to a greater degree. In a sense, this is an illustration of a situation in which countries, to obtain what they see as useful from Internet technology, also have to accept the parts they wish to exercise their right of sovereignty to avoid.

Radim Polcak, Masaryk University, Czech Republic and Dan Jerker B. Svantesson, Bond University, Australia

Polcak InformationInformation Sovereignty is available now.

Read Chapter 1 free online.

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