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The University of Southampton
Southampton Law School

Professor Uta Kohl speaks at 8th Annual Cambridge International Law Conference

Published: 25 March 2019

Last week Professor Uta Kohl spoke at the 8th Annual Cambridge International Law Conference on ‘New Technologies: New Challenges for Democracy and International Law’ held 20/21 March 2019 at Cambridge University.

Professor Kohl presented her paper ‘Corporate Sovereignty on the Internet & Lessons from the East India Company’ at a roundtable discussion.

This paper draws on historical accounts of corporations exercising extensive sovereign powers in exchange for monopoly privileges in order to critically conceptualise the role of private online network controllers, in particular the Big Five - Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft- in the governance of the networked society. It was in the late 16th until late 18th century when chartered companies, most famously the East India Company, played key roles in empire building through creating and controlling complex global trading networks. The deal they entered into with state sovereigns was essentially monopoly privileges over particular foreign markets and regions in exchange for securing key governmental functions in those faraway lands – land that was otherwise beyond the ‘effective occupation’ of the emerging sovereign powers. The discussion explores these past handshakes between governments and private corporations to see what insights they might offer for the governance role played by the super-nodes of cyberspace, whether directly through surveillance of end-users or blocking or takedown obligations in respect of a wide and increasing array of undesirable or illegal material, or indirectly through quasi-regulation embedded in technology, such as algorithms. The discussion also invites a critical reappraisal of conventional thinking of regulation in its geographic or spatial dimension and in terms of its public-private law division.

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