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Digital Imperialism: Can States Ever Control the Internet?

The high seas and the moon are international territories (res communis omnium, in legal terms) controlled by no single state. But as Meta and other tech frontrunners attempt to build an entirely new world that stretches far beyond even artificial territory like Dubai's Palm Islands, will it soon be time to ask the question: who controls the internet?

The internet is, by definition, an international diaspora, a phenomenon which only globalisation can achieve. A client machine made in China and operated by someone in the UK may access an American website created by a Japanese software engineer – for which the information packets may travel through Swiss, German and French servers in seconds. The sheer expanse of the internet is enough to make anyone think that it could never be controlled or shut down. But it's been tried.

It is a popular policy among authoritarian states such as North Korea to restrict access to the internet heavily, but in 2019, the Russian government went further. The 'RuNet' law, passed in November 2019, made it a legally binding target to create the 'Russian national domain name system (DNS)' by 2021, which would effectively segregate the internet into global and Russian parts, with the majority of Russian users unable to access the global internet due to the difference in DNS.

Aside from the domestic freedom of expression implications from the RuNet law, which has often been discussed with reference to the Colour Revolutions and Putin's alleged fear of one happening in Russia, successfully implementing this would effectively create the first-ever virtual borders. Russians would not be able to access information outside of the border, and vice versa, without special permission from both the outside world and the Russian internet regulator Roskomnazdor, almost like a travel visa for the internet.

This becomes a particularly poignant question with the rise of cyber-warfare – it is becoming more and more similar to traditional warfare, with the increased role of states like Russia creating specific cyber-divisions like the infamous APT28 and the focus on what Clausewitz defined as 'centres of gravity', such as the power infrastructure attacked in 2019 in Ukraine by Sandworm. The inclusion of formal borders may be simply an extension of this trend.

However, the main difficulty with RuNet and policing cyber sovereignty as a whole is simply the diasporic nature of the internet. It is too large to be able to police everything all the time and too ingrained into everyday life not to be missed if the implementation of such a policy were successful.

The difficulty, looking to the future, is that while the internet is still rapidly expanding in its size and function, it is also becoming concentrated in fewer hands. Most internet traffic is through a handful of websites – Instagram, TikTok, Facebook – which, despite competition regulators' best efforts, display an increasingly oligopolistic tendency, as shown by Meta's acquisition of numerous companies such as Instagram.

What this means is that the commercialisation of the internet, in theory, makes it easier to control – with the cooperation of a few companies, vast sections of the internet could easily be policed, tracked and changed. This, combined with a formalisation of internet registration, as Russia attempted, could result in the successful creation and control of sovereign territory online. The role of corporations in this would be strikingly similar to the EIC's role in the creation of the British Empire.

This may be focusing on the wrong part of the main question, however. For international territories such as outer space, the high seas and the polar ice caps, the question is not whether it is possible but whether it would be advisable for humanity. Resource extraction in many international territories is challenging and expensive, but the valuable resources are still obtainable. This may parallel the future of digital resource markets – crypto-mining is likely to become much more difficult as more coins are found, and the personal data market is already so congested with information that one wonders what else there is to find out about a person that is saleable.

The question, therefore, becomes: is it advisable to keep the internet running unregulated, and how far should that regulation go? By its diasporic nature, it would necessitate international legislation to regulate it at all. Yet, the very concept of digital territory is so new that international organisations, some of which are almost a century old, must be equipped to deal with the questions being asked. The nature of law is slow compared to the constantly changing world of digital technology, meaning the law often gets left behind.

The nature of a state, however, is to be selfish and look for where it can gain an advantage over other states and gain the power to control the world. This is why international territory is regulated: to stop the desire to control the world from destroying it completely.

Therefore, the conclusion scholars of international law must draw is that while the nature of states will drive them to try and control the internet, to set up borders and take parts of it as sovereign territory to be controlled and policed, the very nature of the internet and the speed at which digital technology changes will result in digital colonialism's eventual failure. However, it may already be too late to create an international regulating body to stop them from trying, and the fallout will undoubtedly be immensely dangerous.

Image: Getty Images/via New York Times

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