IGF 2019 WS #59 Digital Sovereignty and Internet Fragmentation

Organizer 1: Farzaneh Badii, Internet Governance Project
Organizer 2: Milton Mueller, Georgia Tech Internet Governance Project
Organizer 3: Ilona Stadnik, Saint-Petersburg State University
Organizer 4: William Drake, University of Zurich
Organizer 5: Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, European Summer School on Internet Governance
Organizer 6: Mona Badran, Cairo University, Faculty if Economics and Political Science
Organizer 7: Olga Cavalli, Ministry Foreign Affairs Argentina

Speaker 1: Mona Badran, Civil Society, African Group
Speaker 2: Alexander Isavnin, Technical Community, Eastern European Group
Speaker 3: Peixi XU, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 4: Achilles Zaluar, Government, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 5: Vint Cerf, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 6: Lise Fuhr, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Milton Mueller, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Online Moderator

Jeremy Pesner, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Ilona Stadnik, Civil Society, Eastern European Group


Round Table - Circle - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

The policy questions can be classified into three headings: 1. The nature of national sovereignty and its extension to 'digital sovereignty' or ‘cyberspace sovereignty’ - Is digital sovereignty compatible with the globalized access provided by the Internet protocols? What is gained and what is lost by trying to make cyberspace conform to principles of territorial sovereignty? - How does sovereignty in cyberspace relate to/differ from traditional notions of sovereignty that shaped international communications policy since the 1850s? - Why and how are countries trying to create "national Internets?" Are these efforts compatible with a global internet or will they lead to fragmentation of the infrastructure or the services and processes that it supports? 2. National and global effects of digital sovereignty: - How do attempts by some countries to create a "sovereign Internet" affect the human rights of Internet users? - How do national boundaries on data flows affect economic development, competition and efficiency in the global digital economy? - How does sovereignty in cyberspace affect the security and privacy of Internet users? - How do they impact foreign firms seeking to operate locally? Are they consistent with international trade and other multilateral obligations? 3. Governance responses: - Would it be better to conceive of cyberspace as a global commons similar to the high seas or outer space? What are the policy and governance implications of classifying cyberspace as a global commons? - What blend of institutional settings would be useful in addressing the conflicts engendered by by strongly statist digital sovereignty practices? What would be the role of e.g. security arrangements, international trade agreements, international privacy agreements, MLATs and other efforts to deal with access issues of concern to law enforcement and others? - Is there any role in this discussion for multistakeholder cooperation, or is sovereignty a matter on which only states should engage? If there is a role, how could this be structured?


GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Description: The purpose of this workshop is to explore the new discourse and practice of national sovereignty over cyberspace and to consider its implications for Internet openness vs. fragmentation. The session would be organized as an interactive roundtable. In the first half, the moderators would pose a few policy relevant questions pre-arranged with speakers and foster fluid debate. In the second half the floor would be opened to dialogue with all in-person and remote participants. The roundtable has a highly diverse set of organizers and a well qualified set of discussants. The people and organizations proposing this workshop are from Europe, Iran, Egypt, USA, Argentina and Russia. It will be moderated by Milton Mueller and William J Drake, prominent academics who have written seminal scholarly works on the topics of cyberspace sovereignty and Internet fragmentation. Discussants include Lise Fuhr, the Danish director of the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association. Vinton Cerf of Google is one of the founders of the Internet and a key figure in the Internet technical community. Two perspectives from Russia are included. Co-organizer Ilona Stadnik is an international relations scholar from St. Petersburg University, Russia. Alexander Isvarin heads the Internet Protection Society of Russia, a civil society organization that advocates for Internet freedom in the country. Ambassador Achilles Emilio Zaluar Neto, from the Foreign Ministry of Brazil, is a government stakeholder. Xu Peixi, Communications University of China, is a leading Internet governance scholar from China. Mona Badran, Cairo University Egypt, specializes in the study of digital trade.

Expected Outcomes: The workshop will produce a better understanding of the technical and economic feasibility of the various digital sovereignty models being considered or implemented around the world and their implications for global Internet governance. The workshop is expected to clarify what is really happening and dispel any myths about cyber-sovereignty proposals. The workshop is expected to foster a more informed dialogue between the BRIC nations and Internet globalization advocates about governance models for cyberspace. The organizers of the roundtable have specific plans for disseminating the ideas and outcomes from this panel into other forums and to the public. They will develop a report on the workshop outcomes and publish it on their widely-read websites. Results will be taken into cybersecurity conferences such as CyCon in Tallinn and Cycon US. Internet institutions such as ICANN, regional Internet registries and IETF are also forums for continuing the discussion of this problem.

The roundtable format will allow a dynamic and flexible discussion. The moderators are experienced Internet governance scholars and participants who understand the different points of view. The group of organizers have 13 years of experience in organizing and facilitating IGF workshops and Schools of Internet Governance in different world regions. They will allow the contrasting views and national perspectives to be presented at the outset and then open it up to reactions and responses from the other roundtable participants. At least 30 minutes of the 90 minutes will be reserved for audience and remote participant questions and comments. It should be noted that Internet Governance Project, which is rooted in academia, has organized dozens of successful roundtables and panels both inside and outside of IGF and is very experienced at managing them.

Relevance to Theme: The problem of how to achieve security, stability, safety and resilience needs to be discussed in the context of understanding the role of sovereignty in cyberspace. National sovereignty is the organizing principle of the traditional international political system. In the traditional sovereign model, national governments take most of the responsibility for protecting security, stability, safety and resilience. But because sovereignty is bounded by territory, their authority stops at their borders. The Internet, in contrast, is transnational in scope and provides the potential for borderless connectivity. Thus in cybersecurity traditional security and stability practices have had to be modified, often relying on multistakeholder cooperation and cross-border operations in which the power of states is shared with many other actors. Today, in a context of cyber-attacks by state actors and a globalized digital economy, efforts to assert territorial control into cyberspace and project it onto all things digital are gathering momentum. Across the world, governments of many political complexions are considering or have adopted broad policy frameworks they say are necessary to maintain what they variously describe as cyber, data, informational, digital, or technological sovereignty. They have been implemented via such measures as forced data localization, barriers to cross-border data flows, routing and surveillance requirements, digital industrial policies and trade protectionism, and censorship and blocking of classes of data flows or Internet-based platforms. Russia and China are prime examples but many other countries are assessing these different models. This roundtable includes participants from Russia, China, Brazil and Argentina as well as Iran, the USA and Europe.

Relevance to Internet Governance: The tension between national sovereignty and the global Internet is probably the single most fundamental Internet governance issue today. The Internet protocols create a globally connected virtual space in which anyone from anywhere in the world can communicate; in the technical structure of cyberspace distance and territory do not matter. Governmental authority, on the other hand, is bounded by geographic territory and each government is supposed to have supreme authority in its territory. Ever since the World Summit on the Information Society, governments have been trying to insert the concept of sovereignty into Internet governance discussions. On the other hand, many Internet users, platforms and service providers have been promoting the benefits of seamless global interconnection. There is a clash between the two distinct models of Internet governance. The tension between sovereignty and globalization plays out in several Internet governance issues. The debate over data localization often appeals to “technological sovereignty.” The global debate over cybersecurity and cyber norms also has struggled to understand how notions of sovereignty can be reconciled with the globalized espionage and attack capabilities provided by cyberspace.

Online Participation

We will use it to allow remote participants to submit questions or directly participate in the discussion in real time.

1. Key Policy Questions and Expectations


  • Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Tech, Internet Governance Project
  • William Drake, International Fellow and Lecturer, University of Zurich

Roundtable participants:

  • Lise Fuhr, ETNO 
  • Vinton Cerf, Google
  • Ilona Stadnik, StPetersburg University, Russia.
  • Alexander Isavnin, Internet Protection Society Russia
  • Ambassador Achilles Zaluar, Foreign Ministry Brazil
  • Xu Peixi, Communications University China
  • Mona Badran, Cairo University Egypt

The discussion moved sequentially through four key policy questions/ issue-areas that were listed on the program and agreed online by participants in advance of the meeting. These were:

Q1 The nature of national sovereignty and its extension to 'digital sovereignty' or ‘cyberspace sovereignty’

Q2 National effects of digital sovereignty

Q3 Global effects of digital sovereignty

Q4 Governance responses

Discussion of these questions facilitated better cooperation in cyberspace by revealing the contradictions and problems posed by assertions of territorial sovereignty in cyberspace, and by clearing up our thinking on how states need to interact in cyberspace.

2. Summary of Issues Discussed

On Q1, the group discussed the many meanings that have been given to “digital sovereignty.” Concerns were expressed about service fragmentation by  statist policies but panelists differed as to whether these can be justified by the asserted need to regulate multinational companies, primarily the big American platforms. 

On Q2, most panelists noted that attempts to create national "sovereign Internets" have negative effects on human rights, economic development, the global digital economy.

On Q3, the group considered whether the new sovereignty claims will lead to increasing fragmentation of the infrastructure or the services and processes that it supports. Panelists also considered how digital borders impact foreign firms seeking to operate locally, and whether they are consistent with countries’ international trade and other multilateral obligations. On these points panelists agreed about effects but differed about the causes.

On Q4, the group expressed a range of views. Calls for further analysis and dialogue in the IGF engendered support. Due to time pressures, only brief attention was given to the role of international rules dealing with access to data held abroad. Similarly, there was brief but inconclusive consideration of whether it would be better to conceive of cyberspace as a global commons similar to the high seas or outer space. The open discussion among all participants that followed the panel raised a wide variety of issues with varying connections to the sovereignty/fragmentation linkage.

3. Policy Recommendations or Suggestions for the Way Forward

Again, there was interest in exploring these issues further within the IGF ecosystem. The issues involved are multidimensional and include economic, technical, and overarching governance dimensions and hence would be best addressed through the IGF and other multistakeholder processes. In parallel, efforts to build consensus on some of the issues raised by “digital sovereignty” policies is underway in a number of intergovernmental settings, e.g. the G7, G20, OECD, and WTO, as well in the diverse intergovernmental negotiations on access to data held abroad, mutual law enforcement agreements, etc.

4. Other Initiatives Addressing the Session Issues

There are no notable international projects or initiatives specifically designed to assess or build global consensus on the ascendant “digital sovereignty” discourses per se. But as noted previously, there is work underway to deal with a some of the state practices that have been justified in these terms, e.g. efforts to devise rules limiting forced data localization and barriers to crossborder data flows. The desirability of such rules remains a hotly contested point, and this was reflected in some of the discussion.


However, there have been research projects linking “digital sovereignty” policy frameworks and Internet fragmentation. Examples include:

William J. Drake Vinton G. Cerf Wolfgang Kleinwachter, Internet Fragmentation: An Overview (World Economic Forum, January 2016),  

Milton L. Mueller, Will the Internet Fragment?: Sovereignty, Globalization and Cyberspace (Polity Press, June 2017) and the journal article Against Sovereignty in Cyberspace, International Studies Review, September 2019 

5. Making Progress for Tackled Issues

Perspectives on the topic were divided along the usual IGF ideological/political lines. Many participants expressed concerns about governments’ increasingly expansive use of “digital sovereignty” rhetoric to justify statist policies that contribute to Internet fragmentation. Some participants nevertheless wanted states to adopt strong regulatory approaches toward certain Internet platforms. Due to the lack of consensus on these matters there were no well defined agreement on how progress might be made other than by supporting further dialogue.

6. Estimated Participation

The Saal Europa was full and some attendees were left standing. A rough estimate is that about 200 attended and 40% of the attendees were women.

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

Gender issues are not uniquely relevant to the topic and hence were not discussed.