It all started with incendiary comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron during the 2018 Internet Governance Forum in Paris. As internet governance scholar Dr Blayne Haggart recalls, ‘Macron basically announced that the state is back in internet governance, which of course prompted the questions: Is the state back? What would that look like if it was? Is this an exaggeration? Where has the state been all along?’
Haggart and co-editor Dr Natasha Tusikov, both former Associate Fellows at the Centre, sensed in these questions the germ of what would eventually become their edited volume, Power and Authority in Internet Governance.
‘We had wanted to do an edited volume as a kind of capstone to our time at the Centre. Being the Centre’s first internet scholars, we had planned to do something on internet governance.’
Encouraged by Centre Co-Director and co-editor Dr Jan Aart Scholte, Haggart and Tusikov began to develop the project out of a workshop which took place in Duisburg in 2019.
Professor Scholte aided in the development of the project, including preparations for the workshop itself, securing a number of the contributing authors, and mediating the book’s contract negotiations. He gives major credit to his co-editors, however, emphasising that ‘we should be clear that Blayne and Natasha did the main organisational and editorial work—hence I am correctly listed third in the order of book editors.’
The context for the workshop’s research question was provided in a field that asked about polycentric modes of governance. Governance of the internet provides an interesting case where ‘multistakeholderism’ developed alongside states giving increasing attention to finding regulatory solutions to challenges that range from hate speech and privacy concerns to threats to free speech and cybercrime.
Power and Authority in Internet Governance investigates the hotly contested role of the state in today's digital society. So, is the state 'back' in internet regulation, as Macron declared? Professor Scholte would encourage the assertion that it never left. Therefore, the book cautions an all too easy juxtaposition of authoritarian vs. democratic state governance. This, as the editors stress in their introductory remarks, draws attention away from what they see as some important underlying dynamics. These include:
- the hegemonic role of the United States in constructing the private internet governance regime,
- the somewhat ironic sidelining of civil society in multistakeholder governance processes, and
- the extent to which internet governance is shaped within the context of an increasingly powerful global digital capitalism. (9)
The project derives these conclusions from a wealth of insights from collaborators, and the editors proudly maintain that the contributions on China (Lianrui Jia, Ting Luo, Aofei Lv) and Russia (Ilona Stadnik) in particular contain a degree of detailed empirical analysis that is uncommon in English-language texts. A central aim of the publication is well supported by this: 'A more nuanced account of authoritarian states in internet governance' (251).
Professor Haggart has noted that the book project actually helped to change his own view of internet governance and even helped to introduce a new grounding methodology. ‘Working on the book confirmed to me the utility of thinking of internet governance in an holistic manner. Niels ten Oever’s chapter, for example, presents a very compelling case for looking at the issue holistically, as part of a larger, complexly interconnected system, rather than as a simplified dichotomy of democratic and authoritarian modes. It addresses the question of how to accommodate the different values and different approaches of societies in a global network.’
The volume begins with a bird's-eye view on the typology of internet governance (Mauro Santaniello), the role of states at ICANN (Olga Cavalli and Jan Aart Scholte), value competition in a single regime complex (Niels ten Oever) and the changing role of the state in an emerging data-driven economy (Dan Ciuriak and Maria Ptashkina). It then scrutinizes internet governance in authoritarian and democratic states. It will be interesting for readers to compare these depictions of the state of the art in China and Russia, as mentioned before, with those of Brazil (Jhessica Reia, Luã Fergus Cruz), Latin America more generally (Jean-Marie Chenou) and the EU (Julia Rone). It seems that institutional and historical contexts contribute much to a possible explanation of differences in approaches and perceived regulatory needs. The role of civil society involvement is an underlying theme in almost all contributions. Civil society was instrumental in spreading digital culture and 'literacy' in many countries. Civil society feels sidelined, however, in many contemporary scenarios. Smart Cities in Brazil seem to provide a case study here (Jhessica Reia, Luã Fergus Cruz).
In a summary the editors highlight five main points:
- First, current trends show widespread state attempts to exert greater control in internet governance, and these government initiatives often conflict with the private regimes that have previously dominated in areas such as internet infrastructure.
- Second, business plays significant constraining and enabling roles in shaping state power vis- àvis the internet.
- Third, both authoritarian and democratic states (in different ways and to different degrees) face technical, social and economic limitations when they seek to exert ‘sovereignty’ in internet governance.
- Fourth, multistakeholder internet governance in practice often puts both state and civil society actors in a secondary role behind business and technical interests.
- Fifth, the US government continues to have a consequential role in the overall regime complex for internet governance. (243)
The book problematises the tension between norm-resistant capitalism and ideas of governance that have a kind of public interest in mind (democratic and authoritarian states; civil society). In the end, the editors indicate sympathy with 'A carefully crafted return of the state in internet governance’. Readers with a background in policy will get the message that the editors, if not all contributors as well, actually encourage a consideration of greater state involvement. ‘The conclusion highlights the need for researchers and policymakers to ask not whether the state should be involved in internet governance – it always has been – but how the state can be most constructively engaged in internet governance, with full respect for democratic accountability and human rights’. (9)
Haggart, Blayne, Tusikov, Natasha, and Scholte, Jan Aart (eds.) (2021). Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State? Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003008309.