Moving Forward: Fragmentation, Polarization and Hybridity in Cyberspace | Online Conference | 10-12 November 2020
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Panel 4


Digital and cyber sovereignty at crossroads

Christiane Ahlborn

Christiane Ahlborn is a Legal Officer in the Codification Division of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs in New York, where she works with the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. International Law Commission. She is Co-Chair of the U.N. Law Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association. She previously held positions as a lecturer and researcher in international law at the Vienna School of International Studies and the University of Amsterdam, and she has published widely in different areas of international law, including cyberlaw, the law of international responsibility, and international institutional law. She also has work experience with Human Rights Watch and the German Federal Foreign Office. She holds a Ph.D. in law from the University of Amsterdam, an LL.M. from Harvard Law School, and an M.I.S. in international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.




Digital Sovereignty – On How to Make International Rules for Cyberspace

How do we adapt the existing rules of international law to cyberspace? States, international organizations, and civil society currently debate this question in various fora. This paper aims to provide guidance on how to shape international rules for cyberspace while retaining the internet's open, interconnected nature. This paper does not seek to identify how specific rules of international law apply in cyberspace, which will ultimately be determined by states. Instead, it focuses on a possible method or approach that could be used in considering the applicability of international law in cyberspace. Based on the concept of “digital sovereignty,” the paper proposes that it is essential to identify the underlying values or interests that a rule protects. Those values or interests should be safeguarded as the relevant rule is applied offline and online. Sovereignty lends itself particularly well for this analysis because it is a foundational principle of international law, which has experienced a revival in relation to cyberspace. The paper first introduces the concept of sovereignty in its various iterations inside and outside cyberspace (I). It examines which interests or values sovereignty stands for and argues that sovereignty is a principle and not a rule. The paper then discusses how to shape different international law rules to ensure the continued protection of state sovereignty in cyberspace (II). However, sovereignty is not unlimited. The rights of other actors in the international legal order counterbalance claims to digital sovereignty (III). While sovereignty allows states to protect their own cyberspace, they cannot undermine the rights of other states or individuals by taking measures that fragment the internet. Digital sovereignty is thus a double-edged sword that begs both opportunities and risks in shaping global norms for cyberspace.