On November 30, 2016, Laura DeNardis, Gordon Goldstein, and Ambassador David A. Gross presented their new paper, “The Rising Geopolitics of Internet Governance: Cyber Sovereignty v. Distributed Governance at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPS) on November 30, 2016. The paper was part of the Columbia SIPS Tech & Policy Initiative and the panel discussion was moderated by Columbia SIPA Dean Merit Janow.
Internet governance is at a crossroads. The 21st century has given rise to two incommensurable visions for the global Internet and how it is governed. One envisions a universal network that generally supports the free flow of information and whose governance is distributed across the private sector, governments and new global institutions in an approach that has historically been described as “multistakeholder” governance. This vision has materialized, albeit imperfectly, in how the Internet and its coordination has historically progressed and is an approach advocated by the United States government and many other countries. This is the model of Internet governance that has dominated throughout the past decade. The competing vision advocates for greater multilateral and top-down administration of the Internet in the name of social order, national cyber sovereignty, and tighter control of information flows. China and other countries interested in greater administrative control over the flow of information have been vocal proponents of a more multilateral approach to Internet governance. These visions are often debated using the language of abstract theoretical constructs but they involve actual policy choices that have arisen in particular historical contexts and whose future will have tangible effects on American foreign policy interests, American values of freedom of expression and innovation, the global digital economy, and the stability and resiliency of Internet infrastructure itself. This paper provides some historical context to the rise of distributed Internet governance, describes some of the key geopolitical conflicts that involve incommensurability between the ideology of national sovereignty and the technical topology and transnational characteristics of private Internet infrastructure, and argues for the preservation of private-sector-led multistakeholder governance rather than a shift to greater government control.