The quiet battle for control of the internet

Earlier this fall, on the morning of the 20th of September, Spanish police raided the offices of the organization in charge of managing the domain name commonly used by Catalonian websites, '.cat'. The ensuing seizure of the registry’s computers, arrest of its director for sedition, and deletion of domains promoting the October 1st independence referendum sound like a scene from some dystopian cyberpunk future.

This heavy-handed instance of online censorship by Spanish police is part of a growing focus by governments on controlling the twenty-first century’s public square, the internet.

Most internet users today take for granted their ability to instantly retrieve information and communicate across an open and secure, globalized web. However, the internet’s structure is continually evolving and regularly contested. Just because the internet has so far operated in line with principles inherited from its original creators, emphasizing interoperability and free expression, does not mean it always must or will. 

In fact, the recent and intensifying push by governments to promote the concept of “digital sovereignty” represents a real and rising threat to the internet as a force for good. 

China, the world’s most sophisticated online censor, will host the fourth iteration of its Wuzhen Summit this December. The Wuzhen Summit is China’s attempt to create an alternative to the Internet Governance Forum (an annual multi-stakeholder forum for global policy dialogue on internet governance issues) that reflects its state-led vision for the future of the internet.

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