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Regulation: BRICS and cyber sovereignty

Governance and regulation of cyberspace remain a crucial component of contemporary international relations and a hotly contested terrain, especially since new issues about cyber security and digital property rights have gained salience in a networked, globalized and mobile electronic marketplace (Brousseau, Marzouki and Meadel, 2012; Negroponte and Palmisano, 2013). Over the past decade, two competing views have emerged: the ‘sovereigntist’, in which national governments take the major decisions about governance and regulation - vocally championed by China and Russia - and the US-led, market-oriented, privatized network model promoting a ‘multi-stakeholders’ approach (Mueller, 2010; Ebert and Maurer, 2013; DeNardis, 2014), reflecting, as an OECD report notes, the ‘Internet’s own DNA: open, distributed, borderless, multi-stakeholder and global’ (OECD, 2019: 152).The US position has consistently been anchored in the principles of what Goldsmith has labelled ‘commercial non-regulation’ and ‘anti-censorship’ (Goldsmith, 2018). While the ‘multi-stakeholder model’ has strong supporters among three, West-leaning BRICS nations - South Africa, India and Brazil - Russia and China have argued for a UN-approved and managed governance structure with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) undertaking a primary role in defining and implementing governance.

Such moves are stoutly resisted by the US. In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the then Executive Chairman of Google and Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, predicted that the Internet would ‘fracture and fragment’, leading to its ‘Balkanization’, with ‘co-existing and sometimes overlapping but in important ways, separate national systems’ (Schmidt and Cohen, 2013: 85). The BRICS nations, especially China and Russia, have been instrumental in contributing to this ‘fragmentation’, which to them is not ‘Balkanization’ but an attempt to reclaim their cyber sovereignty, ‘to align the Internet with their jurisdictional boundaries’(Mueller, 2017: 3).According to Mueller, the fragmentation debate is ‘really a power struggle over the future of national sovereignty in the digital world. It’s not just about the Internet. It’s about geopolitics, national power, and the future of global governance’ (ibid.).

China and Russia have serious concerns that US control of the Internet compromises their sovereignty and security. Both countries exercise extensive and deeply embedded control and censorship regimes.The so-called‘Great Firewall of China’ - an effective information filtering mechanism - is claimed by many journalistic accounts to be ‘the world’s biggest and most sophisticated system of Internet censorship’ (Griffiths, 2019), a view supported by recent research (Yang, 2016; Roberts, 2018). In Russia, government control over Internet intermediaries and service providers is strong, as attested by Western narratives, journalistic (Soldatov and Borogan, 2015) and academic (Oates, 2013; Nocetti, 2015; for a different perspective also see essays in Davydov, 2020).

In democracies such as India there is also concern about losing control over its cyberspace. In 2011, India proposed a new UN Committee for Internet Related Policies, taking a sovereigntist approach but the effort was not successful. At the UN-sponsored ITU World Conference on International Telecommunication held in Dubai in 2012, Russia and China introduced a proposal for equal rights among nation states‘to manage the Internet’, which was rejected by the US and its Western and other allies, forcing it subsequently to be withdrawn and the ITU to adopt a non-binding resolution.‘A truly global platform is being undermined by a collection of narrow national Internets’, is how a task force report from the US Council on Foreign Relations described the proposal (Negroponte and Palmisano, 2013: 4). Of the 144 members of the ITU, 89 nations signed the resolution, while 55, including the US, either chose not to sign or abstained. Among the BRICS nations, Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa voted for, while India voted against - demonstrating once again a divergence on Internet-related issues.

Under the left-leaning government of President Dilma Rousseff, NETmundial -a ‘global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance’ - was held in Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2014, which, while reaffirming the multi-stakeholder model, also demanded that governance structures ‘must respect, protect and promote cultural and linguistic diversity in all its forms’ (Drake and Price, 2014).The disunity of BRICS was visible here too: Russia and India did not vote in favour of the proposal.

Also in 2014, with the disclosures by Edward Snowden of the extensive surveillance programme and worldwide mobile phone tracking by the US National Security Agency (Greenwald, 2014; Washington Post, 2014), security and privacy issues came to the fore on Internet governance debates and the BRICS countries were the most vocal in their demand to protect their cyberspace. Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Russian Internet firms move their servers to Russia and the Kremlin launched a group of‘cyber guards’ to search for ‘prohibited content’. In 2019, the Russian Duma approved a law on ‘digital sovereignty’, which tried to ‘separate Russia’s Internet from the global one’ (Economist, 2019: 43). In the same year, Russia was instrumental in passing a resolution at the UN General Assembly for a cybercrime treaty, framed around national sovereignty, which would allow greater control of online content by governments, anathema to the West, champions of a ‘free and open’ Internet.

Unlike its other BRICS partners, China’s Internet is an example of cyber sovereignty in practice, with the ‘party-state’ - a strong advocate of de-Americanizing the Internet - controlling both the infrastructure and software of Sino-cyberspace. In a 2018 essay written soon after taking over as chief of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Zhuang Rongwen outlined his country’s plan to ‘exert full control over the information flowing over China’s portion of the Internet’, adding that ‘whoever masters the Internet holds the initiative of the era, and whoever does not take the Internet seriously will be cast aside by the times’ (cited in Creemers, Triolo and Webster, 2018). Utterances such as these have led to reactions from Western governments, Internet corporations and think tanks. The 2018 US National Cyber Strategy document is explicit in its strategy, urging that the US government ‘will continue to work with like-minded countries, industry, civil society, and other stakeholders to advance human rights and Internet freedom globally and to counter authoritarian efforts to censor and influence Internet development’ (US Government, 2018: 25).

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