Cyber sovereignty threatens the open and free internet

Anton P. | May 25, 2021

Cyber sovereignty is a movement towards domestic internet, when independent countries govern the digital sphere within their borders. It is an idea threatening the cyber world as we know it. Pursuing a model of cyber sovereignty means losing the global and open internet, and approaching tighter control over content. Many governments justify their increased internet oversight in relation to national security, local digital economy, or privacy of users. Nevertheless, countries embracing the cyber sovereignty idea might use it to take predatory actions against their citizens. Thus, the increased power governments have leads to surveillance, censorship, and crackdown on freedom of expression.

Cyber sovereignty threatens the open and free internet

What is cyber sovereignty?

Cyber sovereignty refers to governing entities’ goal to exercise control and set boundaries on the internet within their borders. The idea here is that governments have the right to build their own local internet.

Thus, the desired outcome of cyber sovereignty is splinternet. The latter refers to the disintegration or fragmentation of the internet. As a result, there would not be a unanimous approach to the regulation of the digital space. Instead, independent countries would have the jurisdiction to regulate the web as they see fit.

The most notable example of cyber sovereignty manifestation is China and its internet regulations. The country leads this effort, with many practices in place to control the flow of information online.

The Great Firewall is one of them, and its purpose is to block access to the blacklisted foreign websites. The initiative also limits access to various information sources, internet tools, and mobile apps. If foreign services wish to continue serving the Chinese clients, they must abide by the regulations imposed.

Hence, cyber sovereignty can be the fancy term governments use to justify censorship and control over their citizens’ digital lives. Digital authoritarianism is an important concept here. It refers to the use of information technology as means to monitor, repress and manipulate citizens.

Both Russia and China have strengthened their oversight of the digital space as means to oppress and censor. And, unfortunately, some countries do take their internet governance models as inspiration. Attempts to manifest cyber sovereignty are noticeable in many regions, including Egypt, Iran, India, the USA, and many more.

Main problems with cyber sovereignty

The ideology behind cyber sovereignty is controversial, and typically has negative connotations. In essence, it would give countries the control over citizens’ digital rights and duties online. For the most part, the dispute over cyber sovereignty relates to these two problems:

  • Cyber sovereignty opposes the idea of open and free internet. Unrestricted connectivity, openness and freedom are internet principles that we should try to uphold. However, the gradually developed methodologies depict how countries deviate from these values. Abandoning the spirit of the internet in exchange for cyber sovereignty can result in the fragmentation of the internet. In many scenarios, this decision relates to oppression, censorship and unequal access to information and resources.
  • Cyber sovereignty contradicts human rights and free speech. Countries crafting their own regulatory measures typically limit the free flow of information among citizens. The government intervention in the name of cyber sovereignty could be an excuse to silence and oppress. For instance, China strictly curtails negative coverage of its political system.

Can cyber sovereignty benefit citizens?

Establishing a local infrastructure or creating region-specific laws can have a positive impact on society. Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is one of the examples. The goal here was to establish rules that would govern how different companies use and collect users’ data.

The regulatory framework applies not only to the businesses operating in Europe. It takes the global approach, with all companies serving EU citizens needing to reevaluate their strategies towards users’ data. In this case, the goal is to drive a global privacy policy defending consumers’ rights.

However, cyber sovereignty might not have the citizens’ interests in mind. If governments increased their oversight, it would become difficult to regulate their decisions. Some of them could be in favor of censorship and practices that restrict users’ rights and freedoms.

Will cyber sovereignty prevail?

Cyber sovereignty attempts to build a digital environment that corresponds to the varying requirements and laws of different countries.

Some might enforce regulations as means for combating child pornography, fake news, or propaganda. Thus, not all cyber sovereignty examples go as far as China. Nevertheless, normalising the increasing power governments have in platform moderation can be dangerous.

The main question then shifts from “is cyber sovereignty bad” to “how much cyber sovereignty is too much.”

Taking more control over the virtual world could mean combating cybersecurity risks. It could also protect users from offensive or abusive practices, such as misuse of consumers’ personal data.

The issue here is that governments are the ones deciding which online content is derogatory and dangerous. Hence, too much cyber sovereignty could translate as:

  • Filtering, censoring, and blocking content that does not align with favored political views.
  • Limiting free speech and silencing free journalism.
  • Performing intentional internet shutdowns to cut off communication channels within and outside the country.
  • Controlling people through technology and bolstering propaganda.

Most democratic societies embrace the benefits of a global and free internet. However, we see new internet regulatory and legislative structures taking shape. Governments are more fearful over the so-called foreign influence. Thus, many internet restrictions relate to national security. For instance, when Trump’s administration considered blocking TikTok due to the association with the Chinese government.

However, it is difficult for governments to copy-paste China’s internet model. They might lack the technical ability, form of internet infrastructure and institutional resources. Nevertheless, we might see more attempts to domesticate the internet and drive towards a more local approach.

Means of fighting oppressive cyber sovereignty

Users have relatively little means of stopping or objecting governments’ decisions. However, it is possible to resist surveillance or censorship mechanisms. Peaceful gatherings might send a message of disapproval. Some countries considering cyber sovereignty implementation might address the issues society raises. Nevertheless, if governing entities already take drastic measures to limit internet freedom, you can fight back.

Citizens can try using Tor browser to overcome the imposed censorship and access otherwise unavailable media. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) might also help you regain access to blocked services or apps. Sadly, it might not be enough if governments employ protection against citizens circumventing censorship by using VPNs.

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