Network Sovereignty

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Network Sovereignty is the effort of a governing entity, such as a state, to create boundaries on a network and then exert a form of control, often in the form of law enforcement, over those boundaries.[1] Much like states invoke sole power over their physical territorial boundaries, state sovereignty, these governing bodies also invoke sole power within the network boundaries they set, claiming network sovereignty. In the context of the internet, the intention is to govern the web and control it within the borders of the state. Often, this is witnessed as states seeking to control all information flowing into and within their borders.

The concept stems from questions of how states can maintain law over an entity such as the internet for which the infrastructure exists in real space, but the entity itself exists in the intangible cyberspace. Some Internet Scholars such as Joel R. Reidenberg argue that "Networks have key attributes of sovereignty: participant/citizens via service provider membership agreements, 'constitutional' rights through contractual terms of service, and police powers through taxation (fees) and system operator sanctions" [2] Indeed, many countries have pushed to ensure the protection of their citizens' privacy and of internal business longevity through data protection and information privacy legislation (see the EU's Data Protection Directive, the UK's Data Protection Act of 1998). Network Sovereignty has implications for state security, internet governance, and users of their national and international networks.

Implications for State Security[edit]

Networks are challenging places for states to extend their sovereign control. In her book Sociology in the Age of the Internet Communications Professor Allison Cavanagh argues that state sovereignty has been drastically decreased by networks.[3] Other scholars such as Saskia Sassen and Joel R. Reidenberg agree. Sassen argues that the state's power is limited in cyberspace and that networks, particularly the numerous private tunnels for institutions such as banks.[4] Sassen further postulates that these private tunnels create tensions within the state because the state itself is not one voice.[5] Reidenberg refers to what he terms "Permeable National Borders" effectively echoing Sassen's arguments about the private tunnels, which pass through numerous networks.[6] Reidenberg goes on to state that intellectual property can easily pass through these networks incentivizing businesses and content providers to encrypt their products.[7] The various interests in a network are echoed within the state, i.e. by lobbying groups.

Internet Governance[edit]

Many governments are trying to exert some form of control over the internet. There are several examples of this including the SOPA-PIPA debates in the United States, The Golden Shield Project in China, and new laws granting greater power to the Roskomnadzor in Russia.


With the Stop Online Piracy Act the United States would have allowed law enforcement agencies to prevent online piracy by blocking access to websites. The response from bipartisan lobbying groups was strong. Stanford Law Professors Mark Lemly, David Levin, and David Post published an article called "Don't Break the Internet." [8] There were several Protests against SOPA and PIPA including a Wikipedia blackout in response to statements by Senator Patrick Leahy, who was responsible for introducing PROTECT IP Act. SOPA-PIPA were viewed as good for mass media because the acts limited access to certain websites. The acts were viewed as at attack on net neutrality and the seen as potential damaging to the networked public aphere.[9]

Golden Shield Project[edit]

The Golden Shield Project sometimes known as Great Firewall of China prevents those with a Chinese IP address from accessing certain banned websites while in the country. People are prevented from accessing sites which the government deems problematic. This creates tension between the netizen community and the government according to Scholar Min Jiang.[10]


Russia’s ROSKOMNADZOR (Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications) was created in December 2008 in accordance with the President’s Decree no. 1715. The agency was created to protect personal data owners’ rights. According to the Russian government, the agency has three primary objectives:

  • ensuring society demand in high-quality telecommunication services as well as information and communication technologies;
  • promoting mass communications and freedom of mass media;
  • ensuring protection of citizens' rights to privacy, personal and family confidentiality.[11]

On September 1, 2015, a new data localization law provided ROSKOMNADZOR with greater oversight. The law itself stipulates that any personal data collected from Russian citizens online must be stored in server databases that are physically located in Russia. It "creates a new procedure restricting access to websites violating Russian laws on personal data."[12] Even with staunch pressure from those who promote "free flow of information," President Putin and the Kremlin remain stolid in assertions of network sovereignty to protect Russian citizens.[13]

Other examples[edit]

China's approach could also occur in many other countries around the world and has for example during in the cases of Internet censorship in the Arab Spring where the Egyptian government in particular tried to block access to Facebook and Twitter, and 2011 England riots when the British government tried to block Blackberry Messenger. In Ireland, Microsoft and Apple have fought for control over servers, claiming that their intentions to protect user privacy are being manipulated by the US Government, who seeks to lay claim to any information collected by US companies.[14]

Response to Internet Governance[edit]

Many believe that the government has no right to be on the internet. As Law Professor David Post at the University of Georgetown argued "'[States] are mapping statehood onto a domain that doesn't recognize physical boundaries,'" at least in the context on the internet. He goes on to say that "'When 150 jurisdictions apply their law, it's a conflict-of-law nightmare.'"[15] Some proponents of the internet, such as John Perry Barlow argued that the current form of the internet is ungovernable and should remain as open as possible. Barlow's essay was written about the 1990s internet and while the internet has changed very much since then, the ideas his work holds are still salient in the ongoing debates surrounding the future of the internet. In his essay A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace he advocated that governments should stay off of the internet.[16] Network Sovereignty can affect state security, law enforcement on the internet, and how private citizens use the internet, as many attempt to circumvent the protections and legal devices which states may place on the internet using tools such as VPNs.

Impact of VPNs[edit]

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a significant tool to allow private citizens to get around network sovereignty and any restrictions their government may place on their access to the internet. VPNs allow a computer to route its internet connection from one location to another. For example one would connect from a connection at point A to a connection at point B, and to others it would appear that they are accessing the internet from point B, despite being in point A. For example in China VPNs are used to access otherwise blocked content. Yang gives the example of pornography stating that with VPNs “smut that's banned in the U.S. can wind its way into American homes through electrical impulses in, say, Amsterdam.” [15] In this example using VPNs an internet user in the United States could access banned material, which is hosted in Amsterdam, by accessing through a server hosted in Amsterdam to make it appear that they are in Amsterdam based on their IP address. Therefore, citizens have a way around network sovereignty by simply accessing a different server through a VPN. This greatly limits how governments can enforce network sovereignty and protect their cyberspace borders. Essentially there is no way that a government could prevent every citizen from accessing banned content through means such as VPNs.

Reasons to enact Network Sovereignty[edit]

Protection of National Traffic[edit]

One of the most significant reasons for enforcing network sovereignty is to prevent the scanning of information which travels through other countries. For example any internet traffic which travels through the United States of America (U.S.A.) is subject to the Patriot Act and therefore possibly examination by the National Security Agency regardless of said traffic's country of origin. Jonathan Obar and Andrew Clement refer to this routing of a transmission from point State A to another location in State A through State B as Boomerang Routing[17] Obar and Clement provide the example of traffic from Canada being routed through the United States before ending its travel in Canada. This type of routing means that the U.S.A. can track and examine the Canadian traffic.

Copyright protection[edit]

Governments may want to enact network sovereignty to protect copyright within their borders. The purpose of SOPA-PIPA was to prevent what was effectively deemed theft. Content providers want their content to be used as intended because the property rights associated with that content.[18] One instance of this protection is in E-Commerce.


Currently private networks are suing others who interfere with their property rights.[19] In order to effectively implement e-commerce on the internet merchants require restrictions on access and encryption not only to protect their content, but the information of content purchasers. Currently one of the most effective ways to regulate e-commerce is to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to regulate the market.[20] The opposing argument to regulating the internet through network sovereignty to allow e-commerce is that this would break the internet's egalitarian and open values because it would force governments and ISPs to regulate not only the content, but how that content is consumed.[21]

WIPO's Role in Network Sovereignty[edit]

The World Intellectual Property Organization is a United Nations body designed to protect intellectual property across all of its member states.[18] WIPO allows content to traverse various networks through their Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The PCT allows for international patents by providing security for content providers across state borders.[22] It is up to states to enforce their own network sovereignty over these patents. Global standards for copyright and encryption are viewed as one way that governments could cooperate.[23] With global standards it is easier to enforce network sovereignty because it builds respect for intellectual property and maintains the rights of content creators and providers.[24] It is possible that governments may not be able to keep up with regulating these initiatives. For example in the 1995 Clipper Chip system the Clinton administration in the United States reneged on its original policy because it was deemed that it would be too easy to crack the chips in the proximate future.[18] One alternative proposed was the implementation of the digital signature which could be used to protect network sovereignty by having content providers and governments sign off on content, similar to a digital envelope.[18] This system has already been implemented in the use of Wi-Fi Protected Access Enterprise networks, some secured websites, and software distribution. It allows content to pass through borders without difficulty because it is facilitated through organizations such as WIPO.[18]


  1. ^ Obar, Jonathan; Clement, Andrew (July 1, 2013). "Internet Surveillance and Boomerang Routing: A Call for Canadian Network Sovereignty": 2. SSRN 2311792Freely accessible. 
  2. ^ Reidenberg, Joel R. (1996). "Governing Networks and Rule-Making in Cyberspace". Emory Law Journal. 45: 928. 
  3. ^ Cavanagh, Allison (2007-04-01). Sociology in the Age of Internet. McGraw-Hill International. p. 41. 
  4. ^ Sassen, Saskia (2000). "The Impact of the Internet on Sovereignty: Unfounded and Real Worries". Understanding the Impact of Global Networks in Local Social, Political and Cultural Values (PDF). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft. pp. 198–209. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Sassen, Saskia. "The Impact of the Internet on Sovereignty: Unfounded and Real Worries". Understanding the Impact of Global Networks in Local Social, Political and Cultural Values (PDF). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft: Baden-Baden. pp. 198–209. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  6. ^ Reidenberg, Joel R. (1996). "Governing Networks and Rule-Making in Cyberspace". Emory Law Journal. 45: 913. 
  7. ^ Reidenberg, Joel R. (1996). "Governing Networks and Rule-Making in Cyberspace". Emory Law Journal. 45: 914. 
  8. ^ Benkler, Yochai; Hal Roberts; Rob Faris; Alicia Solow-Niederman; Bruce Etling (July 2013). "Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate". Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society: 34. 
  9. ^ Benkler, Yochai; Hal Roberts; Rob Faris; Alicia Solow-Niederman; Bruce Etling (July 2013). "Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate". Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society: 10. 
  10. ^ Jiang, Min (2010). "Authoritarian Informationalism: China’s Approach to Internet Sovereignty". SAIS Review of International Affairs. 30 (2): 71–89. Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  11. ^ "Роскомнадзор - Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (ROSKOMNADZOR)". Retrieved 2015-10-06. 
  12. ^ "News Data Protection: NOERR" (PDF). News Data Protection: NOERR. NOERR. June 2015. Retrieved 10/06/2015.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  13. ^ "Putin Says Russia Under Pressure for Defending Its Sovereignty". Retrieved 2015-10-06. 
  14. ^ "Microsoft, Apple fight for data privacy as US govt seeks broader snooping powers". Retrieved 2015-10-06. 
  15. ^ a b Yang, Catherine (June 14, 1997). "Law Creeps Onto the Lawless Internet". Business Week. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  16. ^ Barlow, John Perry. "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  17. ^ Obar, Jonathan; Clement (July 1, 2013). "Internet Surveillance and Boomerang Routing: A Call for Canadian Network Sovereignty". Social Science Research Network: 1–12. SSRN 2311792Freely accessible. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Davis, J.C. (Summer 1998). "Protecting intellectual property in cyberspace". IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. 17 (2): 12–25. doi:10.1109/44.682891. 
  19. ^ Zekos, Georgios I. "State Cyberspace Jurisdiction and Personal Cyberspace Jurisdiction". International Journal of Law and Information Technology. 15 (1): 1–37. doi:10.1093/ijlit/eai029. 
  20. ^ Zekos, Georgios I. "Legal problems in cyberspace". Managerial Law. 44 (5): 45–102. doi:10.1108/03090550210770614. 
  21. ^ Post, David G. (May 1, 2000). "What Larry Doesn't Get: Code, Law, and Liberty in Cyberspace". Stanford Law Review. 52 (5): 1439–1459. doi:10.2307/1229518. 
  22. ^ "PCT FAQs" (PDF). World Intellectual Property Organization. Retrieved 20 March 2014. 
  23. ^ Reidenberg, Joel R. (1996). "Governing Networks and Rule-Making in Cyberspace". Emory Law Journal. 45: 918. 
  24. ^ World Intellectual Property Organization. "Building Respect for IP". World Intellectual Property Organization. Retrieved 20 March 2014.