An analysis by Roxana Radu and Giovanni De Gregorio prepared for a workshop hosted by Cambridge University Press’ Global Constitutionalism program 16-17 July 2020 (online).

Fragmenting Internet Governance: Digital Sovereignty and Global Constitutionalism

The Internet, as we know it today, will likely change face in the next decade. The rampant evolution of new technologies, powered by 5G connectivity and AI technologies, alters the current status of the Internet infrastructure in unprecedented ways. In a move to upgrade technical standards, China and its tech giant Huawei have recently advanced a proposal to the International Telecommunications Union for a new Internet architecture allowing centralised control over authentication and Internet communications through instruments like ‘killswitches’.

Behind technical concerns, however, hides an interest in reshaping Internet governance (IG) as a space for extending (digital) sovereignty. But IG is not only about political and economic power struggles. It also touches constitutional values on a global scale. Seen for a long time as a ‘democratizing’ platform built on Western ideals, the Internet has not been a neutral environment for global constitutionalism. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to online hate speech leading to genocide in Myanmar, the new global challenges to democracy and human rights have moved online. Attempts to replace the unitary, decentralized Internet with splinters have real implications for the governance of many sectors which rely on this network. Standards and protocols developed in/by authoritarian regimes bring forward concerns about control and surveillance in new global technologies and ultimately make the
protection of fundamental rights and rule of law via constitutional tools obsolete.

This paper argues that a shift in the governance of the Internet towards integrating non-Western standards also entails a new paradigm in the social layer, where individuals exercise their rights and freedoms in various political regimes. In the past, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia have already shown support for Chinese ideas and the new IP proposal to centralised enforcement would fit with this trend. Before these two models, the question is: will Europe and the US continue to provide a credible democratic alternative embedded in digital technologies?

As we move to govern digitally sovereign spaces at the crossroads between democracy and authoritarianism, the resulting fragmentation between paradigms across the world opens up a new research agenda. This work provides the first comprehensive analysis of infrastructure-driven changes in Internet governance and their implications for global constitutionalism. Our study shows how centralisation and fragmentation in governing multiple Internets can affect the principles and values of constitutionalism, and how democratic states can propose an alternative model to protect fundamental rights and democracy on a global scale.

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