Internet nation?

The following is the speech delivered by IGP’s Milton Mueller at the closing ceremony of the 9th Annual Internet Governance Forum


I thank our host country and the IGF Secretariat for the excellent facilities and well-organized event. I also want to shout out to the Turkish alternative informatics activists for their courage and commitment in mobilizing an Ungovernance Forum.

Looking back over the past four days, we’ve had an intense dialogue about the problems and issues posed by Internet governance. The excitement comes from the feeling that we are building some new kind of political community, maybe even pioneering revolutionary new forms of governance. At this closing, I’d like to take this idea a bit further than it has been taken before.

Right now, for better or worse, we’ve attached the label “Multi-stakeholderism” or “the multistakeholder model” to this system – and it has taken hold. But what a lousy label. What an ugly term. I can see people marching for liberty and equality. I can see them laying down their lives for popular sovereignty or human rights. But multi-stakeholderism? Really?

This isn’t just about words. I think the label actually misleads us, frames the political debate in the wrong way. The global Internet governance debate is not really about having multiple stakeholders in the same room to discuss and negotiate policies, because the old system of (democratic) governments and intergovernmental organizations tried to achieve that too, albeit in a different way. The key difference is that multi-stakeholderism elevates transnational non-state actors to the same status as governments. And that’s a radical challenge to the state’s claim to supreme authority, to sovereignty.

So maybe John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is worth a second look.

Barlow’s idea that the internet was immune from control by existing governments has been discredited. But remember, Barlow drafted a declaration of independence. Such a declaration does not necessarily mean that existing nations have no power; it means that the residents of cyberspace want a distinct nation of their own.

You might laugh at that assertion. An Internet nation? What does it mean? Surely, everyone knows that nations are territorial, that the physical facilities of Internet service providers are located in a jurisdiction ruled by a government. Jurisdictions and laws are attached to Internet users as well. But these arguments carry much less weight than one might think.

There is nothing terribly crazy or controversial about the concept of an Internet community. Clearly, the Internet provides the basis for a community with its own interests, an incipient identity, its own norms and modes of living together. And it is only a small step from community to nation. A nation is just a community that wants its own state. So it doesn’t really matter whether existing sovereigns currently have the power to impose their rules on them. What matters is whether that Internet community can be organized to assert, and gain, its political independence.

Existing sovereigns already had dominion over the American colonies when they declared themselves independent; Asia, Latin America and Africa were carved up by foreign powers prior to their independence. Every movement for political autonomy has had to displace some pre-existing form of sovereignty. Every nation is an invention, an imagined community.

What we need now is an internet national liberation movement.

But how would an internet nation function? How would it assert its sovereignty against other states? These are tough questions, which can’t be fully answered here. But pioneers in this field have already hit upon some of the key techniques. One is to globalize technology and content flows. Another is to keep the core technical coordination functions out of governmental hands. Another is to radically undermine, a la Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, the exclusivity of the data and intelligence that national governments enjoy. Bitcoin has even shown that we can have a global, nonstate currency through digital technology.

We don’t want to destroy territorial governments. They do important and useful things within their territories. It’s just that they are the wrong political units for doing global Internet governance. We need a new political community for that, and that, I hope, is what we are building here.


  1. Richard Hill

    Dear Milton,

    Thank you for brining to the fore an issue that has been lurking in the background for many years, namely that some (still) are of the view that Internet governance should be a supra-national technocracy. You say that a key technique to achieve that is “to keep the core technical coordination functions out of governmental hands”.

    That implies that the core technical coordination functions should not be performed by an entity that is subject to the laws and jurisdiction of any particular state. That, is, those functions should be performed by an entity that is immune from state jurisdiction.

    There is a well-known, well-respected, and well-functioning example of such an entity: the Red Cross, founded in 1863 (two years before the ITU).

    So I expect that you will joint those who call for the future IANA to be an entity that is granted immunity of jurisdiction.

    • Tuhin

      Mr. Milton,

      Attempting to achieve ‘Internet Universality’ is one thing, but to think of ‘Internet Nation’ is asking for too much. There are several reasons why the idea of ‘Internet Nation’ cannot possibly be turned into reality.
      First of all it is not clear as to ‘Independence from whom’ is being sought. Are you seeking independence from Sovereign States? how can you ;possibly think that governments would let go control of the internet when it has pervaded all aspects of our lives. Just like the real world, the virtual world also requires discipline, regulations and governance, in the absence of which there will be a total anarchy.

      Secondly, even if it is assumed that a ‘Nation’ such as that being propagated by you is even possible to create, do you think that it could be governed of its own or that there would be no need at all for governing it.

      Thirdly, Cyberspace is occupied by persons from all around the globe; all with different cultural backgrounds and distinct socio-economic environment. Do you think all these netizens would confederate, come together to form a virtual nation which seeks to remain independent, although its not clear ‘what kind of independence.

  2. Jefsey MORFIN

    Dear Milton,

    the BUG (being unilaterally global) has crept into your proposition. The problem is not of being a governance, the problem is not of being global or local. The problem is unilaterality. With an U as in utopia.

    I doubt that the residents of cyberspace want a distinct nation of their own: if such a thing as a cybernation was conceivable (even Cyborgs have a body), people would want several of them.

    What is extraordinary is that some may still wish/dream of a world that would to be seen from a single authoritative point of view, while those who actually build it (OpenStand to begin with) acknowledge its technical and economical fragmentation. They even considers the resulting competition as highly beneficial to humanity.

    I agree it may leads to the second BUG (business unilateral governance), but could you not help us, the individual users, survive the way we wish, and we pay for? Without trying to enroll us by brain washing while other use commercial engineering or political enforcement? Nations are voluntary aggregations of people governed by these people for these same people. Let permit us to have a try at extending them into the digisphere as well.

    Sorry but your buggy buggy debate is not ours. You want a global community, we have local ones. They want a global economic control, I want the digital independence of my village, and to build alliances upon it. My village predates that debate by 2250 years. Time to see what happens to see what happens to its Virtual Glocal Network and how it concatenates with the VGNs of other villages and yours.

    Never seen something built from the top. Except may be castles in the air?


  3. guangul teshager

    very interesting. we need a free internet community with no interference from the politicians. it could be a global NGO supported by UN. what if it becomes a UN specialized agency run by 14 scientists, 14 lawyers and 14 IT specialists carefully selected from each continent.

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  16. Shirleen

    You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the article you write.

    The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe.
    All the time follow your heart.

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