IGF 2021 Town Hall #23 Beyond hype: what does digital sovereignty actually mean?

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021 (09:45 UTC) - Wednesday, 8th December, 2021 (10:45 UTC)
Hall A3

Digital sovereignty: What is meant by digital sovereignty? What implications does it have for the global nature of the Internet, for Internet governance itself, and the effectiveness of the multistakeholder approach? From an opposite angle, what are the implications of the Internet and digitalisation for national sovereignty?

Other - 60 Min
Format description: We are proposing a true "town hall" format in which most of the "speakers" would be audience members. The designated speakers from different regions would merely introduce the notion of digital sovereignty and explain how it is understood in their country or region, and then facilitate discussion and input from the audience.


What lies behind the use of the term digital sovereignty, and what does it mean for global digital cooperation and interdependence? This session at the IGF will provide an opportunity for different stakeholders to raise key issues associated with the consequences of the use of the concept in policymaking. States have been increasingly using this term to frame national and regional policy debates without a critical reflection on the implications for control over our digital space. Digital sovereignty cannot simply be about translating a traditional understanding of sovereignty into cyberspace. It is at worst an oxymoron, and at best, a fluid concept that can have serious implications for all stakeholders in the digital economy. However, the fact that there is no real universal agreement on the key tenets of digital sovereignty, means that different approaches emerge.

A number of questions that we need to ask all parties engaged in exercising digital sovereignty include: Is the current institutional system for the governance of the Internet able to withstand the calls for digital sovereignty? Can states share sovereignty in this space with other actors, or do increased policy actions that push for sovereignty in Internet governance signal the end of the multistakeholder model? What can and cannot be 'bordered' in a digital space, and who has the authority and legitimacy to exercise this?

For this IGF Town Hall we’ll be using a Fishbowl conversation setup. Fishbowl conversations are participant-driven meetings that try to avoid the drawbacks of standard conference formats such as presentations, round tables or Q&A sessions, encouraging participation from all audience members.

Here is the format we will follow

  1. Two onsite audience members and two online audience members will start the conversation. Onsite participants will sit alongside the onsite moderator (Milton Mueller)in chairs arranged in the middle of the Town Hall venue.
  2. To kick off the debate, the onsite moderator will introduce a topic by throwing a question at the first batch of participants. From then on, participants will take turns of 1-2 minutes to answer the question and/or reply to statements made by other participants.
  3. Every 5 minutes (approx.) at least one of the participants will have to leave the conversation, ceding his/her chair to a new participant. Ideally, if an onsite participant has ceded his/her seat after the first round, an online participant will have to do so after the second (and so forth). The idea is to hold at all times an equilibrium between onsite and online participation.
  4. The online moderator will ring a bell every 5 minutes to remind participants that at least one has to leave the conversation. If no one wants to leave his/her seat to a new participant, moderators will make the decision on who’s leaving. In these cases, participants that have engaged in more than one round will be the first ones encouraged to cede their seats.
  5. Participants won’t be allowed to take part on the conversation for more than three consecutive rounds (15 mins.). Therefore, when a participant reaches the limit, he/she will have to leave the conversation and cede his/her seat to a new participant.
  6. Audience members that have already occupied a seat and left the conversation can always ask to re-enter it, but moderators will prioritize participation of new audience members.
  7. Audience members that want to participate in the conversation will have to raise their hands (if onsite) or use the ‘raise hand’ function in Zoom (if online). Moderators will keep a list of people who want to participate and will tell them to enter the conversation by order of request.
  8. Every 10 minutes (approx.), the online moderator will introduce a poll linked to an especially interesting or provocative statement made by any of the participants. All audience members will be encouraged to answer these polls. Before the Town Hall starts, the online moderator will provide instructions on how to answer to polls.
  9. Last 5 minutes of the Town Hall will be used by the onsite moderator to wrap up the debate and make some closing remarks.

Milton Mueller, Internet Governance Project, Georgia Tech, academia; Jamal Shahin, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB); Sophie Hogenboom, UNU-CRIS; Carlota Morais, UNU-CRIS


Jamal Shahin, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Europe; Milton Mueller, Internet Governance Project, Georgia Tech, North America; Mauro Santaniello, University of Salerno, Europe; Sophie Hogenboom and Carlota Morais, UNU-CRIS; Peixi Xu, Communication University of China, Asia-Pacific; Daniel Pérez Fernández, Autonomous University of Madrid

Onsite Moderator

Milton Mueller

Online Moderator

Daniel Pérez Fernández


Jamal Shahin



Targets: Our discussions directly relate to the identified SDG sub-goals. We aim to further debates on understanding the relationship between global internet governance and national control over the Internet. Such discussions lead to a greater understanding of how authority and legitimacy over control of the Internet is exercised, and particularly encourages responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative governance structures at all levels. A deeper understanding of the implications of digital sovereignty discourse should also lead to a reflection on the nature of the multistakeholder mechanisms that are in place and help us develop more constructive partnerships in the field. As digital sovereignty is also a topic that threatens to exacerbate the uneven development of the Internet across the world, this will offer an opportunity to reflect on global knowledge and capacity sharing.