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Governing the Web: A New Battlefield For Power

Nadiya Kostyuk wrote “Governing the Web: A New Battlefield For Power” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship


“Internet is for everyone – but it won’t be unless we make it so”

Vint Cerf, co-founder, Internet Society, and co-author of TCP/IP (1)


Twenty years ago, the World Wide Web (WWW) was seen as a space for innovation, the exchange of ideas, and the free flow of information. While it still serves this purpose today, its governance remains a major battlefield. Countries like China and Russia –  advocates for the splinternet, a division of the internet along countries’ domestic borders – face opponents that promote a borderless online environment. The most recent development in this competition – the 2015 World Internet Conference (WIC) – sparked much controversy. Viewed by many as “China’s attempt to assert itself as the world leader in internet governance,” this conference extended the abyss between the two camps. (2) Furthermore, the presence of worldwide experts at the WIC – such as Paul Wilson, General Manager of the address registry for the Asia Pacific region (APNIC); Eugene Kaspersky of the Kaspersky Lab; and Leonid Todorov, a director at the Asia Pacific ccTLD association – left many puzzled. It remains unclear what message these leaders attempted to send by their WIC attendance. Were they there purely to promote their organizations’ interests? Or does their attendance hint at their intentions to align themselves with “China’s Great Firewall approach to Internet control?” (3) If the latter is true, are we one step closer to a solution to the problem of internet governance (IG)? If so, what does the future of the internet look like?


Internet Governance: It is all about Power


In the past twenty years, the internet has become an indispensable part of many aspects of everyday life. Some argue that the assortment of matters it affects, ranging from crime to freedom of expression, makes finding and implementing a unique IG solution rather challenging. In the constantly growing and diverse body of online users, or netizens, each actor – whether a government, business, civil society, or non-governmental organization (NGO) – often tends to have unique ideas of what the main purpose of the internet is and how it should be used and administered.

The 1990s period of cryptowars, during which governments and private companies disagreed on encryption policies, serves as a vivid example. Private companies used encryption to protect their customers’ credit card information, while governments viewed encryption as a means to hide information useful for criminal investigations.

A country’s form of government and culture is another explanatory variable that potentially contributes to the lack of consensus on an ideal IG solution. China’s emphasis on maintaining a harmonious society is not the only reason for advocating for the splinternet. The desire to protect its domestic population from so-called Western propaganda provides a more accurate account of China’s current position on IG. Cyber espionage, a major political problem in which, for example, the United States (US) accused China of stealing its intellectual property, is another area where cultural interpretations often come in handy for explanation. While The New York Times describes cyber theft as the US’s “no. 1 problem,” China’s response to these accusations is that the US is still “locked in a Cold War mentality.” (4) Can cultural peculiarities be a plausible explanation for these different reactions? Can form of government justify theft? Or is there something else that can explain the diverging views on IG?

The truth about IG is not as complex as either side suggests. The battle over governing the web is simply a question of power over domestic control and global dominance. States are currently divided into two camps: those for “cyber sovereignty,” led by Russia and China, and those against it, led by the US. 

In addition to autocracies that protect domestic markets from foreign competition and their citizens from foreign propaganda, democracies, such as Germany and Brazil, have also joined the for camp. The primary reason for this development were Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations that exposed the actions of the US National Security Agency (NSA) leading to a wave of criticism of global surveillance.

One roadblock on the path toward IG is a demand to review the role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is viewed by many nations as a partial manager beholden to the interests of the US government due to its affiliation with the US Department of Commerce.

Other roadblocks include the multi-stakeholder approach led by NetMundial and the Global Commission on Internet Governance, often criticized for being Western-oriented, since developing nations lack the resources to participate in them, and the many attempts to further the internet balkanization, another name for the splinternet, including the 2015 Russia-China cybersecurity pact and China’s WIC.

While the question of power pushes away implementable IG approaches, such a delay is ideal for those who use the internet for nefarious purposes. The internet’s purpose-built redundancy provides potential attackers with a significant degree of anonymity that complicates efforts to trace the origins of attacks and allows attackers to use proxy servers to hide or mask IP addresses, affording them plausible deniability. (5) The constantly growing damage caused by cybercrime, which amounts annually to USD 445 billion globally, needs an immediate solution.  With the increasing role of the internet, which will entertain five billion users by 2020, the need to create an IG solution is more pertinent than ever in order prevent further escalation.


How it All Started

The 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, held around ten years after the internet became a tool for the broad public, marks the first attempt to regulate this powerful tool. The internet was no longer a collection of computer links, whose primary goal was to allow research labs to exchange knowledge and information, but rather a global network used for innovation, the exchange of ideas, crime, propaganda, bullying, and sex trafficking. More importantly, this network became a new, quick, low-cost, and – to some extent – efficient instrument for exerting one’s power – an idea widely recognized but not explicitly stated by actors worldwide. By agreeing to have the WWW “open, inclusive, collaborative, and transparent [with] all stakeholders taking part on an equal footing” in its governance, the WSIS participants tried to achieve two goals. (6) First, they aimed to secure their ability to use this tool to its full potential in order to provide a range of benefits to their constituencies. Later, classified US documents that were released into the online environment by Wikileaks and the 2013 NSA scandal, which revealed that US espionage practices often violated the freedom of privacy, demonstrated that this was not the only goal in mind. Control over its domestic population along with regional or global dominance was a more accurate, implicit explanation of what sparked the WSIS IG debate. Clearly, the 2003 WSIS was an important event in IG history where a “free-spirited” web became a major battlefield.


A Road with Too Many Hurdles


Various explanations exist as to why the road toward IG has multiple hurdles. Too many issues is the most common excuse for the lack of a proper IG mechanism. Its supporters advocate splitting the issues and delegating their governance to organizations that are already in place. While this idea has already brought some fruitful results (such as the World Intellectual Property Organiza­tion that has made some progress in advocating for intellectual property rights, or the World Trade Organiza­tion, which has fully committed itself to a business disputes struggle), the true intentions of those advocates should be further examined.

China and Russia, for instance, are the loudest advocates of the “UN-led, government centric approach to Internet governance.” (7) Some see the meaning that they attach to the word information as a possible explanation for this approach, given both countries’ greatest fear of an uncontrolled and Western-influenced circulation of information. A deeper look at this issue exhibits a close connection between this fear and their desire to retain control over their domestic populations, making this cultural explanation and the sincerity of these countries’ desire to give each country a vote neither complete nor accurate. Rather, China and Russia want to secure their IG shares through exercising their United Nations Security Council veto power.

Similarly, developing nations tend to criticize newly developed initiatives such as the Internet Governance Forum and the 2014 Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance NETMudial as dominated by the West. Lacking the resources to participate in these forums, the former’s main concern is being left behind while others are splitting the internet pie. (8)

Naturally, the US is steadfastly against the one-country-one-vote approach. The current set-up, in which the ICANN oversees the numbering system, worked pretty well until recently. Snowden’s 2013 revelations caused a domino effect that led to a decline in US leadership in IG.

First, global actors voiced their desire to review ICANN’s present role, which aimed to define how the domain name system functions, due to its close connection to the US government. Then, the most powerful global internet and networking companies (which happen to be located in the US) seemed to put an end to their long-term cooperation with the government, which in effect closed a “backdoor” that allowed the latter to obtain customers’ information. This public-private partnership (including the 1994 Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required telecommunication companies to use built-in surveillance equipment to allow the government to wiretap any telephone traffic; the 1996 Communication Decency Act, parts of which infringed upon the free speech of adults; and the 1999 Children Online Protection Act, which imposed economic and technological burdens on free speech) seemed to be a main cause of the period of cryptowars in the 1990s, a trend that returned after the NSA scandal. Afraid of losing their customers, companies, who had once assisted governments by sharing their users’ private information, quickly changed their policies and started advocating for encryption with the goal of protecting their customers’ right to privacy. The level of care for the privacy and satisfaction of a company’s customers directly relates to a company’s profit. Profit, in turn, depends on power: the more profitable the company is, the more pressure it can put on a government to require what it needs.


 ‘Power Weighted’ Interests – A Key to Internet Governance


Despite the convoluted nature of the relationship between international relations and IG, Joseph Nye was the most influential thinker to predict the forthcoming development in this area. Depending on the “depth, breadth and compliance” of IG issues and how they relate to power, they will either progress or regress. (9) 

Online child pornography, for instance, is always provided as an exemplary progressive illustration of how various governments work together on a complex, cross-border issue. However, this is an exception to the rule, as countries may more easily agree to work together to fight a nefarious crime. The situation is quite different when actors are splitting benefits that result in a zero-sum game, in which one’s benefits are another’s losses. What determines which IG issues are likely to progress or regress? 

Nye’s answer is “divergence in ‘power weighted’ interests,” (10) a view supported by classical realists Niccolo Machiavelli and Hans Morgenthau, who interpreted power as an “inherent goal of mankind and of states.” (11) Power, defined as an actor’s ability to exercise influence over other actors within the international system, includes threat or the use of force, economic sanctions, diplomacy, and cultural exchange.

The internet is the most recent addition to this power toolkit. Both aspects of power projection, domestic and international, are important determinants in finding a consensus on IG. For instance, the most common misconception is that the type of regime determines whether the power projection is inwards or outwards. 

Specifically, autocracies tend to be more obsessed with their domestic control while democracies provide freedom of expression. The case of Russia demonstrates that this is not exactly true. The Russian government makes sure that it is protected from any threat, whether it is coming from the outside or inside. To be safe on its external front, besides looking for strong supporters of its view on the splinternet, Russia implemented laws (the 2000 Doctrine of Information Security and the Conceptual Views on the Activity of the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Information Space (The Views)) that allow it to deploy forces in other states’ territories to provide information security. (12) Besides toughening its laws tailored against freedom of expression, troll factories protect its domestic blogosphere. Similar to China, the government plants people online who take part in various policy debates to steer the discussion toward favoring the government and/or influence the views of internet users. (13) While keeping control over its citizens, this practice creates the impression that the government tolerates freedom of speech, at least to some extent. (14) Constantly feeding propaganda to its own citizens and those around the world, these governments project their domestic and global power.

Despite the perception that democracies tend to practice the right to privacy, Snowden’s revelations demonstrated that this is a complete misbelief. Regardless of the full-scale outburst from the international community, including strong remarks by the UN and the Council of Europe against mass surveillance and the creation of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy position at the UN Human Rights Council in March of 2015, (15) governments and security services wanted to preserve their internal and external power and attempted to continue their mass surveillance practices by “requir[ing] telecoms companies to keep customers’ data for up to ten weeks.” (16) The decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) finds the Safe Harbor agreement, which allows for the free flow of information between the European Union (EU) and the US, to be invalid will make this process harsher and the IG battlefield bloodier.

Obviously, power plays itself out differently in democratic and non-democratic countries. Domestic control in the EU and US is different from domestic control in China. For instance, the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees its citizens the ability to freely exercise this right, whereas in China this right is often suppressed. The commonality between these two countries, however, is that both countries violate this right; the former does it unofficially via monitoring its citizens’ communications whereas the latter is quite open about it. The manifestation of power internationally is also quite different. The US, for instance, tends to impose on other countries’ domestic affairs, under the guise of spreading democracy, or hacks into private communication of citizens worldwide, under the guise of fighting terrorism. China’s approach toward acquiring its power is rather straightforward. It uses everything it needs to keep building its empire. 

Even with a smaller number of online users, developing countries also see the internet as an influential tool that is an indispensable part of their economies, militaries, education, and governments. With its number of online users increasing from 2.4% in 2005 to 15.1% in 2013, (17) India vibrantly expresses its desired outcome when it comes to the IG solution. By uttering the need to diversify the voices in internet governance, India, along with other developing countries, sees the widely-advocated multi-stakeholder IG approach as a way to create even more wealth for developed countries that have already been long-term beneficiaries of the advantages that the internet provides. (18) While the internet can help to create innovation and promote economic growth and development, these lead to more profit that, in turn, leads to more power.

These examples demonstrate that states, irrespective of their type of government or level of development, will never stop trying to increase their ability to project their internal and external power by acquiring an even larger share of internet control. By creating even more obstacles on the path toward commonly accepted rules of IG, countries and corporations try to find convenient ways for them to acquire the largest possible share of this powerful tool. 


What is Next: World Wide Web or a System of Cyber Sovereign States?


The internet is a fascinating creation and its importance in everyday life is drastically increasing. Its complex structure; the multiplicity of stakeholders, issues, and jurisdictions; and cultural differences all serve as potential explanations for why suggested internet governance models do not satisfy everyone. The fight for power, however, comes as the most distinct reason for such diverging views. Recent developments, including the ECJ ruling and China’s WIC, send a warning signal: that internet balkanization, a division of the internet along geographic and commercial boundaries, might be closer than expected.

The most extreme consequence of this development, as explained by Microsoft president Brad Smith, is a “digital dark age,” a disruption of everything from credit-card payment systems to airline reservations, causing tremendous losses to governments and corporations, and limiting avenues and speed for potential growth and innovation. (19) In order to stop the fight over internet control, which will only cause the World Wide Web to slowly turn into a system of cyber sovereign states, there is thus no better time than now to come up with a commonly accepted solution for IG.


About the Author


Nadiya Kostyuk is a doctoral student in a joint program in Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a fellow at the Global Cooperation in Cyberspace initiative at the EastWest Institute. She received her MS in Transnational Security from New York University in 2013, where she wrote her thesis on Russia's cyber politics. Nadiya worked at the EastWest Institute as a program coordinator for the cyber initiative. She received her BA in International Criminal Justice from CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Nadiya is from Berezne, Ukraine.


1. Vint Cerf, "The Internet is for everyone." (2002).

2. "The Wuzhen Compradors," Internet Governance Project, Dec. 29, 2015, accessed Jan. 29, 2016, http://www.internetgovernance.org/.

3. Ibid.

4. Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman, Cybersecurity: What Everyone Needs to Know. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

5. Marie-Helen Maras, Computer forensics: Cybercriminals, laws, and evidence (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2012).

6. "Internet Society." History of Internet Governance. Accessed Jan. 29, 2016, http://www.internetsociety.org/history-internet-governance.

7. Corwin, P. "NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement Concludes Act One of 2014 Internet Governance Trifecta, Circle ID.(May 3, 2014)," accessed Jan. 29, 26, http://www.circleid.com/posts/20140504_netmundial_multistakeholder_statement_concludes_act_ one_of_2014 (2014).

8. Sash Jayawardane, Joris Larik and Erin Jackson, "Challenges, Solutions, and Lessons for Effective Global Governance" (2015).

9. Joseph S. Nye, "The Regime Complex for Managing Global Cyber Activities" (2014).

10. Nye, "The Regime Complex".

11. Wolfram Hilz,, "Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York 1948." In Schlüsselwerke der Politikwissenschaft, pp. 310-314. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2007.

12. "Conceptual Views on the Activity of the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Information Space." The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. PIR Center. Accessed Jan. 27, 2016, http://www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/9/13480921870.pdf.

13. Derek S. Reveron (ed.), Cyberspace and national security: threats, opportunities, and power in a virtual world. (Georgetown University Press, 2012).

14. Reveron, Cyberspace and national security.

15.  Tom Barfield, "Two Years after Snowden NGOs Push for Privacy," The Local, June 05, 2015. Accessed Jan. 29, 2016, http://www.thelocal.de/20150605/two-years-after-snowden-activists-push-on-privacy.

16. Tom Barfield, "Two Years after Snowden NGOs Push for Privacy".

17. "India Internet Users," Internet Live Stats. Accessed Jan. 31, 2016. http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/india/.

18. "Indian Minister of Communications & Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad," ICANN. June 22, 2015. Accessed Jan. 29, 2016, https://www.icann.org/news/multimedia/1435.

19. Henry Farrell, and Abraham Newman, "The Transatlantic Data War," Foreign Affairs 95, no. 1 (2016): 124, 131.



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