Can We Save A Truly Global Internet?
from the one-would-hope... dept
As we’ve been noting for years now, the global internet is at risk. China walled off its part of the internet early on, and other authoritarian regimes followed suit, with Russia and Iran taking the lead. But, at the same time, we’ve seen other regimes start to layer on their own regulatory regimes that effectively cut off other parts of the world, including the EU, which seems to believe its writing rules for the global internet, but may only be hastening the further fragmentation of the internet.
And yet, some of us still would like to believe that the concept of a truly global internet is one worth saving. Recently, the Council on Foreign Relations put out a report that basically calls that belief naïve, saying that we need to “confront reality in cyberspace,” with that apparently “reality” being that a global internet is impossible.
The United States has heavily influenced every step of the internet’s development. The technologies that undergird the internet were born out of U.S. federal research projects, while U.S. companies and technical experts made significant contributions. Similarly, the internet’s governance structures reflected American values, with a reliance on the private sector and technical community, light regulatory oversight, and the protection of speech and the promotion of the free flow of information.
For many years, this global internet served U.S. interests, and U.S. leaders often called for countries to embrace an open internet or risk being left behind. But this utopian vision became just that: a vision, not the reality. Instead, over time the internet became less free, more fragmented, and less secure. Authoritarian regimes have managed to limit its use by those who might weaken their hold and have learned how to use it to further repress would-be or actual opponents.
The lack of regulation around something so integral to modern economies, societies, political systems, and militaries has also become dangerous. This openness presents a tempting target for both states and nonstate actors seeking to undermine democracy, promote terrorism, steal intellectual property, and cause extraordinary disruption. Even more dangerous is the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to cyberattacks. Making the circumstances all the more difficult, figuring out who is behind a given attack remains challenging, allowing states and nonstate actors to carry out cyberattacks with a high degree of deniability and avoid significant consequences. In addition, because most cyberattacks occur well below the threshold of the use of force, the threat of retaliation is less credible.
Frankly, U.S. policy toward cyberspace and the internet has failed to keep up. The United States desperately needs a new foreign policy that confronts head on the consequences of a fragmented and dangerous internet.
I guess it’s not that surprising that a group like CFR would strike such a stance. Reading it feels very much like the stance of political bureaucrats with a philosophical bent, and a belief in politics, rather than those who understand the underlying nature and promise of the internet.
It’s good to see the report getting some serious pushback. Jason Pielemeier and Chris Riley have a strong piece in response, In Defense of the Global, Open Internet.
Cyber warfare and information warfare are undoubtedly in our midst. However, embracing the CFR report’s narrative and changing the course of U.S. policy in response to the continued trajectory of attacks not only would undermine human rights, democracy, and the internet itself but also would empower governments like China and Russia that benefit most from the “every country for itself” approach to the digital world. Instead, the United States should recommit to its vision for internet freedom by articulating and demonstrating how democratic states can address complex cybersecurity threats and digital harms through innovative, collaborative, and democratic means.
As the response notes, by giving up on the belief in a global, open, and interconnected internet, we’re actually aiding authoritarians tremendously:
If the United States, in particular, portrays the future of the internet as inevitably isolationist, it is as likely to push governments toward authoritarian models as it is to incentivize governments away from them. This could result in a potentially disastrous fait accompli that will likely imperil innovation, equity, economic growth, and human rights in the decades ahead.
But I think the most important part of this response is that it points out that CFR’s underlying assumptions are not just wrong… but fundamentally weird.
In sum, the CFR report seems to equate a free and global internet with anarchy at worst and naive insecurity at best. That is simply not true. Internet freedom posits a rights-centered and rules-based approach to internet governance. Necessary efforts that restrict rights are allowed under international human rights law, when they are clearly articulated, serve legitimate purposes, are proportionately tailored, and are accompanied by relevant accountability and transparency measures. These are the yardsticks against which future actions will continue to be measured, regardless of how the United States frames its cyber policy. They also happen to be the clearest principles policymakers and analysts can use to draw distinctions between authoritarian approaches and democratic ones.
They also highlight something that is true across a wide scope of discussions about internet policy. Everyone focuses solely on the negative aspects they see as being caused by the internet, rather than even acknowledging the massive positive benefits that have accrued as well.
Focusing on negatives also risks ignoring much of the value that the internet has created and continues to create. And the primary remaining value that the United States must prioritize is freedom. As one of us has argued previously, when compared to offline spaces, the internet continues to create significant opportunities for courageous, consequential, and U.S.-interest-aligned activities including independent journalism, accountability, and the protection of minority rights.
Frankly, the fact that a group like CFR is now arguing for effectively walling up the internet should be seen as a scary turn of events. It’s exactly what countries like China and Russia want. The interconnectedness of the internet, and the freedom it has enabled (especially of expression) have long been threats to them. For the US to go back on that would be seen as a huge win for Russia and China, and suggest that (1) their approach had been correct all along, and that (2) the US’s commitment (as hollow as it may ring) to freedom was a disaster.
If you don’t think that won’t be used against the US, you haven’t been paying attention.
Obviously, the US has plenty of problems right now (as it always has), but even when it’s exaggerated, keeping our guiding star pointed towards more freedom has always been good policy. Our failures tend to be when we move away from that (and this isn’t the first time that CFR has tried to point the country in that wrong direction).