China, the Internet, and Sovereignty

China’s World Internet Conference is, according to its organizers, about:

“An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All—Building a Cyberspace Community of Shared Destiny”. This year’s Conference will further facilitate strategic-level discussions on global Internet governance, cyber security, the Internet industry as the engine of economic growth and social development, technological innovation and philosophy of the Internet. It is expected that 1200 leading figures from governments, international organizations, enterprises, science & technology communities, and civil societies all around the world will participate the Conference.

As the Economist points out, “The grand title is misleading: the gathering will not celebrate the joys of a borderless internet but promote “internet sovereignty”, a web made up of sovereign fiefs, gagged by official censors. Political leaders attending are from such bastions of freedom as Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”

One of the great things about being at GA Tech is the community of scholars from a wide range of backgrounds. This year colleagues in Public Policy hired Milton Mueller, a leader in telecommunication and Internet policy. I have known his work for some time, but it has been great getting to hang out and talk with Milton. Not surprising, but Milton has a take on the idea of sovereignty and the Internet. I can’t share it, as it is in the works. But as a teaser, keep your eye out for it.

As a general matter, it seems to me that sovereignty will be a keyword in coming Internet governance debates across all sectors. Whether the term works from a political science perspective or others should be interesting. Thinking of jurisdiction, privacy, surveillance, telecommunication, cyberwar, and intellectual property, I can see sovereignty being asserted, perverted, and converted to serve a range of interests. Revisiting the core international relations theories to be clear about what sovereignty is and should be seems a good project for a law scholar or student as these areas evolve.

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