In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, the idea of internet sovereignty—“the notion that governments, rather than multinational corporations based in the United States or U.S.-founded agencies like the ICANN… should have control over their own internal cyberspaces”—is gaining traction in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Russia.
Over the past decade, the concept of the untamable internet has dwindled, making government regulation a viable—and debatable—option all over the world. Citing the US National Security Agency’s reach into Facebook, Skype, and other social media, some foreign leaders are calling for fully enclosed, nationalized alternatives to the internet as it exists today. But is internet sovereignty a matter of national security, or a means to police internet activity more easily?
Vladimir Putin, one of the more vocal leaders calling for internet sovereignty, made a splash when he labeled the internet as it exists today a “CIA project.” A few weeks later, the Russian president passed “Bloggers’ Law,” requiring that bloggers with over 3,000 visitors a day register with the government. Registered bloggers will be considered media outlets, and will be held accountable for the veracity of the information they publish.
As veteran journalists, we appreciate the spirit of accountability, especially when more and more people are relying on alternative news sources. Here’s the rub, though. Putin’s critics point out that while he pays lip service to protecting the interests of Russian people, Putin is more concerned with policing their online behavior. In April, Pavel Durov, the 29-year-old founder of Vkontakte, Russia’s popular version of Facebook, fled Russia after refusing to release information about activists in Russia and the Ukraine. It’s a familiar brutishness deployed in the name of security—and smacks of good old-fashioned censorship.
What’s Internet Sovereignty Really About?
So why are some leaders calling for internet sovereignty, really? Look past what their political speechwriters write, and instead at their policies as far as censorship and human rights. As Joshua Keating of Slate points out, “Internet sovereignty might be a little easier to take seriously as a concept if many of the governments that are most enthusiastic about it weren’t so blatantly interested in policing their citizens’ Internet use.” Iran has been calling for a national internet to block unwelcome Western influences for years.
While countries like Brazil may be interested in internet sovereignty for security reasons, others are not. For governments seeking to quell unrest and activism within their borders, it seems internet sovereignty is just another way to control the flow of information, including offensive political content. In the United States, we can count ourselves lucky that, at least for now, the internet will stay neutral.