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Ostrom Memorial Lecture to address conflict between cyberspace and sovereignty

Lecture will launch ‘Smart Cities’ conference focused on best practices for collecting, using and protecting data

Sep 27, 2018

The internet has been an “accidental revolution,” creating tremendous social and economic value because it enables communication and information-sharing across state and national boundaries, said Milton Mueller, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

But nations threaten that unique value when they restrict how the internet is used and try to regulate it in alignment with principles of national sovereignty, said Mueller, who will deliver the 2018 Ostrom Memorial Lecture next week at Indiana University Bloomington.

“Trying to impose sovereignty undermines the whole point of the internet, which is to create global compatibility for everyone, everywhere,” he said.

He argues it’s better to think of the internet and cyberspace as a commons – akin to the high seas or outer space – where public and private parties can work out rules and arrangements to maintain access.

Mueller, founder and director of the Internet Governance Project and a leading scholar of the political economy of information and communication, will speak on “Sovereignty and Cyberspace: Institutions and Internet Governance” at 6 p.m. Oct. 3 in the IU Maurer School of Law moot court room.

The lecture honors the late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, longtime faculty members who founded and directed the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. Both died in June 2012.

While previous Ostrom Memorial Lectures focused on economics and natural resource governance, Mueller’s lecture will address issues covered by the workshop’s relatively new programs on Cybersecurity and Internet Governance and on Data Management and Information Governance. The lecture will launch a “Smart Cities” conference taking place Oct. 3 to 5 at IU Bloomington.

Mueller said governments want to assert sovereignty over cyberspace for a variety of reasons, including fears that it can be used for military purposes or to compromise national security. As examples, he said, China and Russia restrict access to the internet, and many nations have enacted data localization legislation requiring online data to be physically stored within national boundaries.

“But the United States is not innocent on this either,” he said, pointing to U.S. targeting of companies like Russia-based Kaspersky Labs and China’s Huawei Technologies despite little evidence that they threaten national security.

Cyberattacks are a problem, Mueller said, but elevating national sovereignty over cyberspace will cause more problems than it solves. A better approach, he said, is to look to transnational agreements and organizations to provide regulation where it’s needed.

That’s already done, he said, with organizations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which coordinates the assignment of internet terms and identifiers. Such entities could be established for other tasks, like assigning responsibility for cyberattacks, he said.

Mueller said ideas and inspiration can come from the work of Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for her research demonstrating that individuals and groups can effectively govern commons resources without relying on government or privatization.

“There will be difficult battles,” he said. “A key part of this is just establishing the idea that cyberspace and sovereignty don’t mix.”

The “Smart Cities” conference, at the Ostrom Workshop, 513 N. Park Ave., will bring together academics, local officials and others to discuss challenges that arise as cities collect and use data to provide more effective services such as traffic control, government information and police protection.

Participants, including city officials from Bloomington, Indianapolis, Chicago and Seattle and experts from IU and other universities, will discuss best practices for using data and protecting privacy, said conference organizer Anjanette “Angie” Raymond, associate professor in IU’s Kelley School of Business and director of the Ostrom Workshop program on data management and information governance.

Registration for the Oct. 4 panel discussions is free but space is limited; email Raymond at to register. On Oct. 5, the conference will be an invitation-only meeting at which participants develop agendas for future research.

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