Sovereignty in cyberspace
- By Bruce McConnell
- Sep 18, 2000
The demise of the nation-state has been predicted for more than a century.
Karl Marx called for it to wither away. New ecologists argue that ecosystem
boundaries make more sense than national borders. In the words of Jose Maria
Figueres, former president of Costa Rica, "There are only two nationalities:
those that are connected to the Internet and those that are not."
Are nation-states and those who work for them under siege?
Certainly there are threats. The free downloadability of PGP Security's
128-bit encryption software played an important role in the debate over
relaxing encryption export controls. Offshore Internet gambling continues
to defy national controls. And in the physical world, the emergence of non-state
terrorists adds a dangerous distraction to the growing list of internal
pressures many countries face from tribal, religious and ethnic groups.
To most people and businesses, borders may not matter but sovereignty
still does. The purposes set out by the framers of the U.S. Constitution — to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common
defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty
to ourselves and our posterity" — are communal tasks that must be performed
in an organized fashion. So what kind of organization makes sense in the
To answer, one must wrestle with both physical and cyber dimensions.
We want the places where we live and work to be safe and economically secure,
and we have depended on territorial governments to do so. These governments
face a crisis of legitimacy if they cannot perform these core functions.
The architects of electronic government understand this as a problem of
service delivery. The much greater challenge that technology poses for sustainable
legitimacy remains the province of think tanks.
In cyberspace, the problem is even murkier. The most ambitious experiment
in cyber governance is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
(www.icann.org), the nonprofit corporation formed to handle the assignment
of Internet domain names on a global basis. ICANN is a contentious test
bed for methods of making decisions and creating legitimacy. For example,
David Johnson and Susan Crawford argue in "Why Consensus Matters" that "the
democratic formula used in the 18th century for the United States does not
work for the Internet." Despite the best of intentions, even the most basic
principles remain unclear.
Thus, the answer is far from obvious. As John Hamre, former deputy secretary
of Defense and now president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, has observed, "In many ways, we are witnessing governments grounded
in 19th century policies and practices seeking to navigate in a 21st century
globalized economy. But even as it falls behind, government cannot and will
not abandon governance. The challenge is clear: If American business, industry,
academia and society want more effective forms of governance, they will
have to help invent them."
—McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office
of Management and Budget and director of the International Y2K Cooperation
Center, is president of McConnell International LLC.