Beyond Boundaries: The Geopolitics of Cyberspace

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Beyond Boundaries: The Geopolitics of Cyberspace

The concept of sovereignty serves as the foundation for various rules and principles of international law and is considered to be the cornerstone of international law. The modern conception of the state is characterized by notions of territory as fixed boundaries, under the power and rule of specific states, and protected by international laws which legitimize the state as territorially fixed. Thus, sovereignty and the international legal personality of states are inextricably linked.

Alejandro Leal
Aug 15, 2023

In recent years, the question of a state's territorial sovereignty in cyberspace has been a major topic of discussion. The emergence of cyberspace has introduced new spatial dimensions and challenged our understanding of international law. When it comes to cyberspace, the solid and defined notion of territory does not necessarily apply there. Sovereignty has been unbundled in cyberspace, both in practice and in legality.

At its core, the notion of sovereignty in cyberspace encompasses a state's authority and control over the digital activities that take place within its borders. While all states would claim some degree of sovereignty over the internet, countries such as Russia and China have embraced a broader interpretation of cyber sovereignty. Both states define cyber sovereignty in ways that are consistent with their respective political and security objectives.

Technology, geopolitics, and cyber sovereignty

According to the Chinese cyber sovereignty principle, cyber sovereignty is the idea that each country has the right to exercise control over the Internet within its territory and the right to choose its own digital development path. The Chinese Cybersecurity Law enacted in 2016 has further promoted this idea and defined the security obligations that Internet providers and services must follow. As a result, the concept of cyber sovereignty has become China's guiding principle in its domestic digital policy.  

Russia's interpretation of cyber sovereignty, mirroring that of China, is characterized by the regulation of information and information flows and the ability to regulate, surveil, and influence digital activities occurring within its borders. For example, in 2018, Russia proposed a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly, which some argue legitimizes state surveillance and censorship through its emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.

Although liberal democracies have also intervened in the digital realm to counter the threats of disinformation, terrorism, and cybercriminal activity, their approach tends to balance the protection of citizens' rights and privacy with the need to maintain a secure online environment. Consequently, their interventions in the digital sphere often come with checks and balances and public discourse to ensure that security measures do not impede upon the democratic values they seek to protect.

Semiconductors and national security

In addition to the principle of cyber sovereignty, the concept of supply chain sovereignty has recently gained traction in economic and political circles. Since the spring of 2018, the trade conflict between the United States and China has been in full swing. Dependence on imports and foreign producers is now considered a national security risk in many states. Global supply chains can be more efficient in delivering goods and services at lower costs while fostering international competition at the same time. However, states are wary of gaining economic advantage at the expense of national security.

Some countries have identified and subsidized key technologies such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors; while the former is important in the long term, the latter has more immediate implications in the global supply chain. The semiconductor industry is a vital part of today's information age and a key component of today's global economy. As a result, new restrictions limiting China's access to chipmaking software and equipment continue to be imposed by the United States as part of its national security agenda.

There is more to this story than trade tensions between China and the United States. Many countries are claiming sovereignty over the shared digital technology space. For example, the European Union has been trying to reduce its dependence on the United States for years. Through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union has achieved some measure of internet sovereignty via regulation. Nevertheless, the EU is likely to continue to seek greater convergence with the United States and to build digital alliances with like-minded countries.

Addressing challenges through cooperation

While technology continues to develop integrating forces, geopolitics is moving toward greater fragmentation, posing a serious dilemma for business leaders and policymakers. Despite different interpretations of cyber sovereignty or supply chain sovereignty, countries will need to cooperate at the international level and work together to address global challenges.

Data breaches, espionage, sabotage, misinformation, supply chain disruptions, and cyberattacks are just a few examples of the global challenges we face. Governance of cyberspace requires both shared values and trust to work, but this will ultimately depend more on consistent and enforceable legal understandings than on technology. It is therefore clear that cyberspace will continue to play a critical role in international law and geopolitics in the years to come.


Alejandro Leal
KuppingerCole Analysts AG
Background and Education Bachelor of International Relations and Security from Jagiellonian University in Poland and a Master of Technology Governance and Digital Transformation from Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia. Professional Experience Alejandro has gained professional experience doing research in cybersecurity think tanks, a cryptocurrency gaming brand, and the Mexican Embassy.
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