Governing through crisis. Conflict, crises and the politics of cyberspace | Online Conference | 9-11 November 2021
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Panel 2


Great Power Perspectives: Sovereignty, Norms and Attribution

Riccardo Nanni

Riccardo Nanni is completing his PhD in International Relations at the University of Bologna, studying the role and influence of Chinese stakeholders in Internet governance. Prior to it, Riccardo obtained a MA (cum laude) in Human Rights and Multilevel Governance at the University of Padova, during which he spent six months in China at Guangzhou University. After graduating, he worked as project manager at the Women Centre of Padova and held a traineeship position at the EU Delegation to China.

LinkedIn: Riccardo Nanni



A Quest for Digital Sovereignty in Internet Governance? Observing the Role of Chinese Stakeholders in ICANN

In its open and private-based dimension, the Internet is possibly the 21st century’s epitome of the Liberal International Order in its global spatial dimension. Therefore, many see deep normative challenges deriving from the rise of powerful, non-liberal actors such as China in global Internet governance. In particular, China is often portrayed as a supporter of a UN-based multilateral Internet governance model based on digital sovereignty aimed at replacing the existing ICANN-based multistakeholder model completely. While persistent, this debate has become less dualistic through time.

This article addresses the following question: Is China contributing to increased state influence in multistakeholder Internet governance?

To do this, the author analyses Chinese stakeholders’ actions in ICANN, adopting a regime-theoretic and historical-institutionalist approach. These allow to interpret changes and persistence in ICANN’s norms and in Chinese stakeholders’ stances towards the existing governance model. To conduct the analysis, this article applies a threefold method: network analysis, expert interviews, and document analysis. First, network analysis is conducted on selected open ICANN working group mailing lists through the Python-based tool Bigbang. Second, qualitative semi-structured interviews have been conducted with twenty-nine participants from six Internet stakeholder communities: governments, international organisations, Internet multinational enterprises, civil society, academia, and technical communities. Third, document analysis is conducted on ICANN’s post-IANA stewardship transition bylaws and on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee’s (GAC) minutes in the year preceding the transition itself (ICANN 54 to ICANN 56).

While China features a ‘digital sovereigntist’ approach to such sensitive issues as data protection and grows influential in multilateral fora, this research finds that the Chinese government does not exert full control on its domestic private actors and concludes that Chinese stakeholders have increasingly accepted the existing institutional architecture of ICANN-centred multistakeholder Internet governance as they grew influential within it.