To protect the future of the internet, US-led tech diplomacy must change tack

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

In the wake of its recent Democracy Summit, the U.S. has proposed that “like-minded democracies” should form a new “Alliance for the Future of the Internet” to uphold open, liberal values online. The latest in a long line of cooperation initiatives, it is a promising candidate for delivering progress. But in its current guise, it risks falling short. Now, with disagreements between officials delaying the launch, the U.S. must take this opportunity for a rethink.

The underlying logic behind the Alliance remains sound: Internet freedoms are increasingly under threat globally, governments are competing to assert their authority, and a decades-long governance system formed of voluntary bodies is now creaking. As Tim Wu, adviser to the Biden administration on tech policy, recently said, “we are on the wrong trajectory.” Against this backdrop, a new initiative to promote and defend open, liberal values in the internet era is sorely needed.
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In practice, however, the U.S. focus on “like-minded democracies” working together risks undermining its own objectives. That’s because the future of the open internet will not be secured either by a small club of democracies talking only to themselves or by employing coercion alone. Instead, any Alliance must be far more inclusive, focusing on setting the economic and security incentives right from day one to build a wide and sustainable coalition for the long term.

This would represent a much more internationalist approach to internet policy than the U.S. has usually needed to take. For decades, America’s outsized jurisdictional power has underwritten the open internet model: Despite only 7.1% of the world’s internet users being based in the U.S., it is home to 61% of core infrastructure services for the global internet. Its dominance has supported the model of permissionless innovation, interoperable networks and “dumb pipes” — infrastructure that can’t see what content it is transporting — which has generated such immense economic and social value. Only China, home to 19% of global internet users, has comparable geopolitical sway.

Yet U.S. hegemony can be relied upon no longer to maintain a free internet. Many countries are at a tipping point in how they govern the internet, with authoritarian internet models including censorship, surveillance and shutdowns quickly gaining ground. And today, 3.7 billion people still do not have internet access.

As connectivity improves, the developing countries that are home to most of this group will come to determine the future of the internet — and at present they are likelier to receive the necessary financing from China than anywhere else. The shift to a multipolar internet is a given, but its direction — open or closed, liberal or authoritarian — is not.

On these trends, focusing only on cooperation among today’s democracies amounts to overindexing on an ever-smaller section of the internet. Organizing solely around values also highlights those areas where traditional allies are not yet in agreement, such as the EU and U.S. on several areas of internet regulation. For any alliance to succeed, therefore, it must move beyond the accepted cliché of “like-minded partners” and adopt a twin approach — prioritizing economic and security incentives alongside commitments on internet openness, such as a ban on internet shutdowns — to encourage a broader set of countries to join.

This strategy will be particularly important to convince those countries that are increasingly considering more restrictive internet policies. For example, since 2015, 31 of 54 African countries have blocked access to social media to some degree. Undoubtedly, some of these shutdowns have been due to overt repression and must be met with a strong international response. Yet other interventions have been less ideological: When violent content online has left leaders worried about public safety, a combination of muddled policy, low state capacity and underinvestment in content moderation from major social media services has led to regrettable actions that might otherwise have been avoided with greater support.

It is not too late to arrest this trend and secure core internet freedoms. But such efforts will not succeed through coercion alone. While the fight against authoritarianism is crucial, allowing every debate to get wrapped up into polarized “democracies versus authoritarians” language can actually close off opportunities for cooperation, only accelerating greater restrictions and fragmentation. The effect of this corrosive discourse can already be seen in Africa, where the West too often treats states as little more than sites for “proxy battles” in a larger U.S.-China “cold war.” Neither of these conceptions are helpful.

China is not a monolith: It is a partner, competitor and adversary to the West all at once. The U.S., EU and others cannot force China out of the global internet infrastructure market, and nor should they want or need to. Africa, the U.S. and China would all be better served by a globally competitive market for internet infrastructure, with no one state either monopolizing provision or footing the entire bill.

Similarly, not only do African countries have their own political priorities and challenges, but it is often in the West’s own economic interests to offer support. Connecting all 3.7 billion people without internet access would, for example, cost just 0.02% of the gross national incomes for OECD states — a group of countries including the U.S., UK, Korea and Japan — while generating a huge 25x return.

Yet when the G7 launched its “Build Back Better World” project this year, designed to compete with China’s infrastructure offer, it came with no new money. Meanwhile there has been little effort to reform World Bank and IMF development programs, which the U.S. could influence, despite them being uncompetitively bureaucratic, risk averse and expensive for many African leaders facing fragile development pathways and urgent job-creation demands.

For years, we’ve lacked the necessary political leadership and ambition for a program of this kind. But the Alliance for the Future of the Internet has the potential to provide a reset. To succeed, it must show there is no pathway to prosperity that undermines core internet freedoms, while also providing the right guidance and incentives to enable a different approach. While there will always be some countries who never sign up, these strong incentives could persuade many “swing states” — such as Indonesia, Kenya or Brazil — to join. Only by building wide, internationalist coalitions that are in everyone’s economic and security interests to sustain will the open, global internet truly be protected for the long term.

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