Unity and Diversity in Global Internet Governance: An Introduction

Jan Aart Scholte and Sigrid Quack

The global internet was born of the 1990s, a moment of US-centred unipolarity and neoliberal triumph. Reflecting this circumstance, the first generation of global cooperation in internet governance consisted mostly of following a single set of mainly California-made rules steeped in liberal values. Now, three decades later, world politics has become more multipolar and ideologically contested, features that increasingly shape global internet governance as well. Initiatives proliferate for alternative protocols, data localization, and territorially varying content regulation. Defenders of unity perceive threats of internet fragmentation, while promoters of diversity perceive opportunities of digital sovereignty and online pluralism. Either way, the motif of global cooperation around the internet has shifted from following the leader to debating differences.

This special issue of Global Cooperation Research – A Quarterly Magazine examines intertwining impulses toward unity and diversity in global internet governance today. Specialists from a variety of issue areas, world regions, academic disciplines, and political positions comment on centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in emergent regimes for online spaces. The essays examine types and degrees of convergence and divergence in current global internet governance, as well as expected consequences of these developments.

Several overarching questions pose themselves across this special issue. Do Western liberal principles continue to dominate global internet governance, in spite of some noisy headlines to the contrary? Or does the global internet move towards a bifurcation of ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ spheres with radically opposed foundational norms? And to what extent does the line of current historical travel vary depending on the issue field and geographical context? What implications could result from these different scenarios of unity/diversity in global internet governance? What may happen in terms of technical effectiveness, democratic accountability, personal liberty, distributive justice, conflict scenarios, cultural politics, and ecological integrity? Which players and what purposes gain or lose from the various futures of unity and diversity in global Internet governance? In the light of these assessments, which course(s) should be preferred and actively promoted?

The essays in this special issue reveal complex and sometimes contradictory trends and patterns in relation to these questions. Rather than an overall trend toward unity or diversity, the combined findings point towards a pluriverse with a multiplicity of approaches to governing the global internet. To bring out this pluriversity, the thirteen contributions are organized into three sections: conceptual analyses (essays by Tropina, Mare, Aguerre), followed by thematic issues (essays by Medzini, Campbell-Verduyn & Hütten, Lauer, Badii), and then geographical studies (essays by Plexida, Umejei, Nanni, Orji, Budnitsky).

In terms of conceptual analyses, Tatiana Tropina starts off the debate by underlining a distinction between the technical layer of the internet and its other aspects. While threats to the unity of the technical layer (i.e., systems of protocols, names, and numbers) have so far not seriously materialized, many national governments have moved to control information flows, thereby creating separate national spaces of the internet as regards data and content. This development limits users’ access to content and brings divergence in their experience of the internet. Whereas Tropina regards this trend as a 'threat of fragmentation', Admire Mare in the second essay perceives as an 'opportunity for diversification'. Instead of the dominance of Western norms, more digital sovereignty, particularly in the Global South, can – despite dangers of misuse by authoritarian regimes – open spaces for a decolonized internet. Carolina Aguerre in her piece does not side with either unity or diversity, but rather interprets internet governance through a lens of 'polycentrism' that points to a mix of diversifying and unifying forces. On the one hand, a multiplicity of actors pursue often competing initiatives in internet governance, thereby pushing in the direction of fragmentation; yet, on the other hand, systemic structures (in the form of norms, practices, and underlying orders) maintain an overall unity in the regime.

The section on thematic issuesincludes detailed analyses of the interplay of unity and diversity in relation to four policy concerns: namely, data protection, blockchain technology, mis- and disinformation, and internet access. Rotem Medzini examines global and European regimes around the processing and protection of personal data. He finds that pulls toward unity at macro/legislative, meso/regulatory, and micro/professional levels generally fight off pushes toward diversity. Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn and Moritz Hütten assess debates about the implications of blockchain technology in the so-called 'Web 3.0' for unity and diversity on the Internet. They find that attempts to consolidate blockchain-based activities tend to emphasize technical unity at the cost of socio-economic diversity. Laurens Lauer addresses content regulation in relation to rising mis- and disinformation on the internet. He finds a productive blend of unity and diversity, as a decentred transnational community of some 400 locally embedded fact-checker initiatives has developed a common framework for diagnosing and resolving issues around mis- and disinformation. Finally, Farzaneh Badii worries that too much focus on concerns about internet fragmentation can distract attention from more fundamental questions of internet access. She identifies scenarios around cloud services, peer networks and app stores that, while not undermining the unity of the internet’s technical infrastructure, still restrict access to the internet for some parties.

The third section of this special issue presents a rich set of geographical studies on unity and diversity in global internet governance, including insights from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Examining recent European Union initiatives on internet governance, Elena Plexida notes unifying effects when member countries and beyond follow an EU lead on measures regarding data protection and market regulation. However, several other EU steps taken in the name of 'digital sovereignty' can undermine existing unity of the internet’s technical layer. Emeka Umejei examines how regional unity could help Africa to confront the power of global Big Tech in the internet sphere. However, in contrast to EU measures, African Union initiatives have to date struggled to obtain continent-wide ratification by all members. Turning to the national sphere, Riccardo Nanni scrutinizes claims that recent initiatives from China encourage fragmentation of the global internet. Looking especially at the proposal for a 'New IP', he finds that neither government nor industry in China wishes a separate internet infrastructure. Uchenna Orji presents a study of diversification in the global internet with regard to data localization policies, focusing on developments in Nigeria. He finds that, while these government measures could in principle contribute importantly to national economic development, implementation of the regime is fraught with challenges. Finally, Stanislav Budnitsky examines the recent demand from the Ukrainian government to exclude from the internet’s core infrastructure country code top-level domains and route servers associated with the Russian Federation. He notes that, even amidst many other international sanctions against Russia for the military invasion of Ukraine, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) still gave priority to the principle of interoperability underlying a unified global internet infrastructure – and so refused the Ukrainian demand.

As this introductory overview indicates, this special issue offers a feast of insights on tendencies toward unity and diversity in today’s governance of the global Internet. Overarching conclusions risk becoming oversimplifications. Still, we might broadly say that, in spite of some suggestions to impose national and regional controls on the underlying technical infrastructure of the global internet, prevailing forces favour the maintenance of global interoperability. The main pillars of a unified technical layer – i.e., the domain name system, IP-numbers, and protocols emanating chiefly from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) – remain quite securely in place. However, multiplying data localization regimes and national regulations of online content have introduced considerable diversity into other layers of internet governance, and this trend looks likely to persist if not intensify. 'California-style' libertarians tend to decry this 'fragmentation', while proponents of public-interest regulation tend to welcome 'protections', and advocates of decolonization embrace the prospective 'pluriverse'. We invite you to read on and make up your own mind!