State Sovereignty in the Internet age

If we had to distill part of what defines a nation's sovereignty, it would possibly come down to four key factors.

Namely:

  • Energy independence
  • Financial independence
  • Military independence
  • Food independence

I am aware that there are other factors that determine whether a state is sovereign or not, but, for the purposes of this week's iAfrikan Weekly Digest we shall focus on these four, and specifically the part about a state needing to be independent in order for it to be considered sovereign. I can't claim credit for the list above as it is sometimes used by economics and political science scholars in their arguments in discussing and analyzing, some times, the topic of state sovereignty.

State sovereignty in 2018

However, I think it is time we added a fifth factor to that list, given not only that the world has changed quite a lot, but also given recent events around "Big Tech" and the growing popularity of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. For the sake of simplicity and brevity (and lack of a better phrase at the time of writing) let's call this fifth factor in part of the process of determining a state's sovereignty, Telecommunications independence. Telecommunications because it forms the basis of a lot of the change that we are currently experiencing whether it be OTT services,, Aritificial Intelligence, cryptocurrencies, etc.

Although I suggest the phrase Telecommunications independence, what it encompasses for the purposes of this discussion goes beyond connectivity (i.e. voice, data, text) and includes the other layers on top of that connectivity going all the way up to (using the OSI layers) the apps (software) that depend on telecommunications to operate.

The idea is that, if a nation is not independent in any of the four areas, it is left vulnerable and as a result it's sovereignty is constantly under threat whether directly or indirectly. I'd like to argue that if a state's Telecommunications (as defined for the purposes of this newsletter) is not sufficiently independent, this also threatens the country's sovereignty.

Under threat

As we speak, there are several examples.

Recently we have seen how Facebook was hauled before US Congress to answer questions regarding the Cambridge Analytica saga. Mark Zuckerberg answered all the questions in person. It is important to note for the purposes of this newsletter that Facebook has a registered USA corporation which is legally responsible for all of Facebook's USA registered users as well as all the USA transactions that happen on Facebook's social media platform (e.g. advertising). Compare this to Afrika, specifically South Africa, where recently the country's Information Regulator wrote to Facebook Africa head office in Johannesburg and received a response days later from Facebook Ireland Limited.

Why Facebook Ireland Limited?

That's because Facebook Ireland Limited is the corporation, as Facebook explicitly state in the letter, responsible for all Facebook users outside of the USA. Interestingly, for our discussion, Facebook also states that they are responding to South Africa's Information Regulator on a "voluntary basis", hinting that perhaps they are not legally obliged (given they are incorporated in Ireland) to respond.

Nothing wrong with this, they are possibly well within their legal rights, but it presents us with a conundrum should South Africa suffer the same fate of election interference that happened with the US' 2016 elections.

Which country's laws apply?

The other threat to sovereignty is in the form that Facebook doesn't contribute much to any country's fiscus from a tax perspective as the millions spent by South Africans (it is not only unique to South Africa but applies to all Afrikan countries) to advertise to other South Africans goes to Facebook Ireland Limited and is taxed in Ireland, and not locally. Important to state that this is not unique to Facebook. Similar happens to Uber BV (Netherlands), Google, Twitter, and many other organisations that fall under Telecommunications.

The other angle to consider is also that: *should a country's telecommunications service providers (telcos) be foreign owned considering how important such infrastructure is to state security and in turn state sovereignty?"

Abusing power

However, there is another side of this discussion that is not pleasant and we have been witnessing its effects on the continent. This has to do with Afrikan states that abuse their power and influence to block, ban or disable Telecommunications for frivolous reasons including to silence opposition.

This makes the whole discussion of state sovereignty in the Internet age a conundrum as sometimes, the very governments that abuse their power use "state security" (a valid reason, incorrectly applied) as a reason for Telecommunications shutdowns.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

Do note it is still a rough idea that I am continuously researching as part of an upcoming book I will be publishing (through iAfrikan Digital) towards the end of 2018. However, I believe it is an important discussion that policy makers in every Afrikan country should be talking about.

Kgotso ✌🏽

PS. I sat down with acclaimed South African rapper Stogie T (Tumi Molekane) for his "What We Talkin' 'Bout" podcast. We talk extensively about this (state sovereignty in the Internet age) along with other topics such as Internet privacy, identity politics, hip hop, the music business and more.


This article first appeared on 2 May 2018 in the iAfrikan Weekly Digest Newsletter, a Pan Afrikan weekly digest of the most important stories of the week which includes insights and analysis on the most topical story of the week. Subscribe here to the weekly digest and receive it every Monday.

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