Borders and Boundaries in Internet Governance. Rethinking Scholarship and Policies

Carolina Aguerre and Diego Canabarro

As a technology that was created in scientific environments, the original problem that the Internet attempted to solve was to seek network communications protocols that would interconnect different computer networks, initially in the United States but already by the mid 1980’s across the globe. That was the Internet of unbounded possibilities, the untamed Internet and one that gave origin to the metaphor(s) of a ‘wild digital west’.

Yet, the technical and conceptual architecture of the Internet was always conceived as cross-boundary interconnection between different networks and different computer languages, although it was not framed with those terms. The Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol enabled global network interconnection, but the notion of connectivity implied crossing an imaginary or a physical chasm – integrating what was distinct and different. The study of visible and invisible, material and immaterial boundaries has guided the evolution of the discipline and the delimitation of ‘Internet governance’ practice in the last three decades.

Internet border and boundary-making is crucial today in the policy and scholarly debates about its governance. From the creation of national firewalls, to normative limits in the definition of intergovernmental and non-governmental technical organizations, to artefacts that facilitate and create obstacles for intellectual dialogue among different disciplines, or the infrastructure that defines a notion of digital sovereignty, all these elements appeal to the notion of boundaries and borders around the Internet.

When in 2006 ‘Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a borderless world’, edited by Goldsmith and Wu, was released, the notion of borders became a permanent issue for discussion. The editors’ argument in a nutshell equates the issue of control with the idea of borders mainly through the control of the Internet's underlying material/physical infrastructure. Accordingly, because borders around the Internet exist and can be created, power and control can be exercised by traditional institutions of sovereign states. While over-simplifying the Internet’s inner workings, such a 'realist turn' (Mathiason 2007) was a reaction to the traditional libertarian and utopian discourse of the 1990’s. It promised a borderless world where governmental sovereignty was not an alternative, a position that was materialized in Perry Barlow’s ‘A declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (1996).

Another powerful narrative that consolidated during that decade was derived from the creation of a private sector-led governance entity to manage the Internet's Domain Name System and the DNS Root Zone. In this context, most governments played a minor role, except for the conspicuous case of the United States (Mueller, 2002). The tension surrounding the special status of this government resonated into the WSIS process[1] and fed back into the creation of the UN-backed Internet Governance Forum (Drake 2016). What became evident for some – and for a while – was that the Internet was overriding traditional notions of state sovereignty with new epistemes, new institutions and a new set of actors which aimed to redefine and transform the boundaries of communities, market rules and power. Multi- and transdisciplinary research and scholarship around the Internet, across the intellectual boundaries of STEM[2], Law, Economics and Social Sciences (to name only a few) gained prominence as the proper approach to tackle such a complex ecosystem (DeNardis et al. 2020).

Borders in the physical world (and their effect or lack of effect the Internet) and boundaries (or lack of boundaries) in Internet-related scholarship have defined the field of Internet governance. The issue of Internet control through national and institutional mechanisms has defined many jurisdictional and institutional aspects surrounding Internet governance. Several scholars have devoted considerable effort examining these issues for power and powerlessness in Internet governance (DeNardis 2014; Musiani et al. 2015). However, the specific ontology of how borders and boundaries define what is and what is not Internet governance has only been marginally addressed. Our work is an attempt to deal with how Internet governance’s conceptual borders and boundaries are framed, constructed and negotiated in a double sense: by the recurrence of sovereignty and the re-emergence of physical borders on the one hand, and the tensions that stem from the interaction and the limits of multi- and transdisciplinary research on the other.


Moving across digital boundaries

Traditionally, we have been thinking of the digital ecosystem from a ‘layered conception’ point of view: a telecom / network infrastructure; a logical layer that addresses the devices and organises the data flows of the infrastructure level distributed across the world (the Internet itself); and an applications and services layer, the so called ‘content layer’. On the one hand, this helps to organize and delimit the field, either from an analytical perspective or from a public policy perspective.

On the other hand, this approach has entrenched distinct epistemic communities, institutional solutions and normative approaches. So far, the telecom infrastructure layer has always been subject to regulation, while the applications and content layer has always received a liberal approach of deregulation to privilege innovation without the need to request authorization and the exercise of fundamental rights. The logical layer, in turn, has developed in non-state forums historically associated with the academic and technical community.

During the last fifteen years, the boundaries between one layer and another have been increasingly blurred and it is very difficult to draw a precise line between them. We have observed the clash between the worlds of ‘Internet governance’, understood from a more structuring perspective and the world of ‘governance of the behaviour of different social actors on the Internet’. Although rich, the coexistence between these two worlds generates confusion, cacophony, and difficulty in delimiting the field's agenda.

What is more, the agenda of ‘Internet governance’ has broadened so much in the last decade as to become confused with the notion of ‘broader socio-political governance’ in a digital, Internet-mediated context. (As if, it would still make sense to delimit the digital as a separate sphere from the social, political, and economic ones?)

There is a tendency to treat the digital ecosystem in an ethnocentric way that disregards the complexity of the problems we face. It is increasingly evident that certain gatekeepers play a role in the ecosystem that, functionally, is infrastructural (even if they are traditionally considered application and service providers in the ‘content layer’). This is the case of app stores, cloud services and content distribution networks.

Milton Mueller’s work (2002; 2010; 2020) has attempted to define Internet governance by adopting one of the strictest conceptions around the phenomenon by focusing on the logic layer of the Internet ecosystem (mainly protocols), which determines the interoperable and quasi global features of the technology. Such a narrow approach has been increasingly under pressure due to the fact that borders and boundaries are constantly reinforced around the Internet. For instance, in the field of cyber security, the ‘isomorphic application of concepts of kinetic military force’ (Mueller 2020: 783) to a technology such as the Internet (which is for the most part not territorially bounded) has led to the re-territorialization of security in cyberspace, with growing re-asserting notions of sovereignty that are politically and conceptually defined by international law. Another case in point is the control of vast amounts of data by large platforms, which are legally bounded by the jurisdiction of their headquarters, with operations that affect individual and corporate users around the globe. These data processes are relevant for governance concerns ranging from the global political economy, socioeconomic development and human rights, expanding the range of concerns and the scope of Internet governance agenda in a way that generates noise and raises coordination costs for the different disciplines involved in such a multi- or transdisciplinary endeavor.

According to Hofius and Kranke (2021 boundaries are not only as mechanism of exclusion but also a way of creating an object (in our case the Internet). From this perspective, practices of building, tearing apart or changing boundaries are crucial for understanding contemporary global governance. We are interested in exploring how old and new forces clash around the definitional borders of the Internet and the boundaries that delimit fields traditionally associated with Internet governance.

We argue that narrower policy definitions with clearer boundaries of what constituted Internet governance scholarship and practice in the past have blurred. The Internet has become ubiquitous and a strategic terrain where economic, political and sociocultural disputes are undertaken in policy spheres at the national, regional, and global levels. Such disputes have evolved around the material structure and components of the Internet-enabled digital ecosystem, as well as across the different academic fields that aim to tackle Internet-related phenomena. We also contend that overtly diffuse – and unbounded – conceptions of internet governance can lead to the blurring of the field and that the distinctions ‘governance of the Internet’, ‘governance on the Internet’ and ‘governance with the Internet’ have been treated ambiguously. It is important to bear in mind that the contest for the redefinition of these boundaries is not only legal and political, but also (socio)technical and protocological, epistemological and linked to conceptions of world ordering. We conclude by assessing the implications to increase conceptual  consistency in policy making approaches to Internet governance and to enhance scientific validity and knowledge claims for the scholarly community.


[1] WSIS: World Summit on the Information Society.

[2]  STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


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About the Authors

Dr Carolina Aguerre is a Senior Research Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. Her current research focuses on polycentric governance approaches and digital data; power and participation in Internet governance processes; AI governance; and civil society and digital development. She is a Researcher at the Centro de Tecnologia y Sociedad (CETYS) at the Universidad de San Andres in Argentina and Professor at the Department of Social Sciences.



Dr Diego Canabarro is a Senior Regional Policy Manager – Latin America and the Caribbean at the Internet Society. Besides being a practitioner in the field of Internet Governance, Diego is also an academic with more than ten years of activities in Universities in Brazil and abroad. His research agenda combines Political Theory of International Relations; State Capacity and Democracy; National and International Security; Collaborative and Multistakeholder Governance; Digital Government; ICT policies and regulation; Internet Governance; and Internet and Jurisdiction.