Although the definition of statehood under international law has not been definitively resolved, traditionally, per the Montevideo Convention, “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” In addition, recognition of a state by other states arguably plays a more important role in the statehood process.
However, I would like to propose a new criteria by which the claims of would-be sovereigns can be evaluated. In today’s world, e-governance is rampant. Politicians stay in contact with their constituents via their homepages, agencies administer regulations online, and court filings can be done with the click of a mouse. So whether or not an autonomous region has a permanent, defined web presence that has the capacity to assist its governmental activities is a vital consideration when examining claims of statehood. So, using the Website Theory of Statehood, how do existing unrecognized states stack up?
Taiwan: Taiwan’s somewhat unique status in the “Is it or is it not a state?” debate makes it a good starting place to test the theory. Taiwan’s pseudo-official statehood is reflected in the fact that it has its own country code top-level domain, of .tw. However, ccTLD’s are poor indicia of statehood in themselves; they are distributed by ICANN, and substate regions can also be issued them, such as Jersey’s .je and the Virgin Island’s .vi.
Still, Taiwan starts off on a good note by displaying two strong hallmarks of internet statehood — numerous web domains for each different branch of government and the use of the .gov subdomain for its various state webpages. For instance, the president is located at http://www.president.gov.tw/en/, while the National Assembly is at http://www.na.gov.tw/en/index-en.jsp. (Bonus Trivia Fact from the president’s web page: What do the U.S. and Taiwan have in common? Both out presidents have law degrees from Harvard.)
None of the websites of the various Taiwanese government branches get particularly high marks for style, but they aren’t offensively ugly at least, and they amply satisfy all requirements for accessibility and content.
Verdict: Although Taiwan may not be a recognized sovereign under international law, it is a thriving Internet State.
Somaliland: Although Somaliland’s website is not nearly as sophisticated as the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia’s, Somaliland gets credit for the fact it actually operates from within its own territory. The prominently placed waving Somaliland flag image is annoying, but by itself, not particularly offensive. All in all, in terms of web design, it’s about on the level of a page created by a marginally talented middle school student.
Of course, the webmaster’s yahoo email address is a significant mark against a finding of web sovereignty. And although the fact it maintains a separate website for its Upper Parliament might have won it back some points, as the website does not appear to have been updated at any point in the past three years, it’s really more of a net loss.
Interestingly, the neighboring autonomous state of Puntland has a much more sophisticated web presence, although it is not seeking sovereignty but rather continues to maintain it is a part of Somalia. Aside from the annoying page intro, Puntland’s website is respectable and decent looking. It actually reminds me of the websites of several county governments from my home state of Georgia: clearly governmental in nature and reasonably active, but still small-time government.
Verdict: Not a state, but I’ll give them a solid E for Effort. Somaliland ought to seek advice from Puntland on how to manage its e-statehood.
Kosovo: The websites for the various government branches of Kosovo are all clean, sharp, and authoritative, with a faint air of bureaucratic staleness. In other words, they look exactly like what you would expect for a sovereign state government’s website.
Meanwhile, the website for the Serbian Government of Kosovo is, while passable, somewhat clunkier. More importantly, the dismal imagery and content of the site is all extremely negative in tone, focusing on pictures of bombed out buildings and emphasizing the fear, instability, and chaos of the region.
The contrast between the two certainly weighs in Kosovo’s favor. Kosovo’s website is professional and businesslike, and gives the impression that it is the model of responsive and diligent governance. In direct opposition to this is the Serbian website, which stresses its inability to control the region and is primarily concerned with advancing a political agenda rather than engaging in ah actual governmental capacity.
Verdict: Although the facts on the ground may be drastically different, in terms of its website, Kosovo qualifies for Virtual Statehood.
Cabinda: The wannabe sovereign territory of Cabinda, located in Angola, is a classic example of the self-deluded unrecognized state. Cabinda’s inability to exercise sovereign governmental control over the region is rivaled only by its complete incompetence at web design. Tiled backgrounds, flying bird gifs, scrolling text, spinning “email” icon, images unapologetically created by MS Paint? My god. I’d call this a sad excuse for a geocities webpage, but that would be a gross insult to Geocities webpages everywhere — Cabinda hasn’t even yet progressed past the Angelfire-level of web design.
Verdict: Does not meet even the most minimal of qualifications for Internet Statehood.
Western Sahara: The proclaimed government of Western Sahara has no access to a ccTLD, but .eh has been specifically reserved for the nation once it manages to obtain a unified voice. In 2007, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the government that claims to speak for the sovereign territory of Western Sahara, tried to lay claim to the domain, but Morocco objected. As a result, ICANN refused to release .eh, stating that because of competing claims,
ICANN does not see a way to approve the .EH ccTLD delegation to one of the applicants without violating its long-standing policy unless the contesting parties are able to reach an agreement.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic still has a website, however: http://www.rasd-state.ws/
Note the .ws in the domain name. Now that’s actually a rather clever bit of statehood marketing right there. The .ws ccTLD is in fact registered to Samoa, although the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is cleverly passing off the “ws” as standing for Western Sahara. Who needs .eh, the intended ccTLD for the nation you claim control over, when your Samoan buddies will lend you a domain name that sounds like it was actually meant for you?
Sadly, the website is in Arabic, which I don’t actually speak. The page gets medium marks: although it is simple, it manages to avoid being hideous, and I am reasonably confident that if I could read Arabic the site would be easily navigable. However, judging by the page URL’s (in Spanish, which I can pretend to read), the website does not provide anything in the way of government services, which is a mark against it. However, there do appear to be “official government documents” in PDF form, which gives it a little cred.
Verdict: Although Western Sahara’s separatist government displays some promising signs of Virtual Statehood, they are still a fair distance away from achieving internet sovereignty.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Aesthetically speaking, South Ossetia’s webpage is my favorite of all the unrecognized states’. It is official looking and professional in appearance, and yet still manages to be friendly and pleasantly warm and inviting. You’d totally want to vacation in a country with a website like that — they seem like such nice people. Also, it’s got snow leopards.
Abkhazia’s website is slightly more severe in appearance, comes across as a no-nonsense kind of nation, and may or may not have been a law firm before it decided to declare itself state. The blue-grey color scheme? The overlapping boxes lay out? That is seriously every D.C. small-to-medium sized law firm homepage ever.
Tellingly, however, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia lack their own ccTLD, do not have separate web pages for different branches of government, and do not employ the use of.gov subdomains.
But this doesn’t rule them out entirely. One major point in the break-away regions’ favor is that their websites far outclass Georgia’s websites for the region. Just take a look at Georgia’s Abkhazia homepage: http://www.abkhazia.gov.ge/. It is ugly, slow to load, and contains graphics that appear to have been created by the same MS Paint artist that provided the images for Cabinda. Most of the English language pages are labeled “under construction,” and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t also include those little animated gifs of smileys wearing hard hats to show that. South Ossetia doesn’t even appear to have a .ge website that I could find, perhaps because Georgia revoked South Ossetia’s autonomy? At any rate, not having a web presence for it at all is a dismal way of showing your Internet Sovereignty over a region, Georgia.
Verdict for Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Have not yet achieved Internet Statehood, but are clearly serious contenders for the title. Recommend that Georgia take immediate steps to overhaul its own websites for the regions in order to firmly establish its claims of sovereignty.
Nagorono-Karabkh Republic: The website for the Nagorno-Karabkh Republic contains flashing banners and animated .gif files. This is an instant disqualification for statehood.
Verdict: Not a state. True sovereigns avoid anything that might induce epilepsy in their web visitors.
North Korea: Under International Law, North Korea is a recognized nation. However, under the new Website Theory of Statehood, North Korea should be considered a failed state. This may sound harsh, but given that the Admin of the website acknowledges that there is no internet access in North Korea and that no one in North Korea can actually see their own website, and that therefore the only people who use it are foreign North Korea enthusiasts, http://www.korea-dpr.com actually has more in common with a Beanie Babies fansite than it does a government webpage.
Although the website does at least exist and is moderately functional, it appears that a 13 year old goth boy was hired to design it. Sadly, the forum that was once featured on the site has since been removed. Apparently a web forum was too democratic for North Korea, as the old forum was replaced by a blog, which announced the change by stating: “Today we launch the new KFA Forum, which will mainly be driven by a few select moderators. Of course, everyone can still contribute with their thoughts, ideas, articles, etc, but we’ll be sure to have much more quality content for you.” In other words, the proletarians were not generating enough ‘quality content,’ so a more restrictive approach was adopted for their own good.
Notable features of the site include a FAQ, with helpful answers to questions such as, “Is North Korea a Dictatorship?”, “Is it true everyone in North Korea is starving?”, and “How can I join the North Korean army?”
Verdict: Not a state. I don’t care if the United Nations recognizes North Korea; when Transnistria, Puntland, and Nagorno-Karabkh have better web presences than you do, your statehood is officially revoked.