After a somewhat fractious process, the United States launched the Declaration for the Future of the Internet last week with over 60 global partners. The signatories recommitted to an internet that is “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure.”
Reactions to the declaration were predictably divided, with Elon Musk, Twitter’s best-known “free speech absolutist” calling it “satire” and even some supporters referring to the declaration as redundant.
To call this redundant initiative is to miss the moment. To call it satire is to miss the point. While the language is familiar, the context has changed. The status quo is failing. The United States’ traditional hands-off approach to internet governance and regulation is insufficient in the current era.
The declaration offers a reset. It is a timely reaffirmation of the signatories’ commitment to values-driven leadership, and an invitation for continued accountability.
The declaration comes at a moment of reckoning. Countries, institutions and corporations are struggling to address the seesawing issues of harmful content and free speech, security and interoperability, privacy and innovation. Without principled leadership, the pendulum is swinging away from the free flow of information.
Authoritarian regimes around the world are cynically using legitimate cybersecurity and disinformation concerns as a pretext to pass laws that threaten citizens’ privacy and core civil and political rights. But these regimes are not alone in proposing fundamental changes to the internet we’ve come to know and tolerate.
Whether or not the United States adjusts Section 230, or passes comprehensive privacy legislation — reportedly in the works and made ever more pressing by the leaked decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade — US citizens, companies, and government agencies will be impacted by other countries’ and institutions’ efforts to improve privacy, reduce harmful content and promote digital sovereignty — a concept that broadly encompasses control over digital infrastructure and citizen data
From rapidly proliferating data localization proposals to privacy standards that could significantly alter cross-border data flows, shifts in the global consensus extend far beyond Chinese and Russian-led proposals that would fracture the internet.
Countries around the world are grappling with the core questions of when, how and with whom citizens and systems can interact online. As democracies struggle to address the challenges posed by harmful online content and the blossoming data broker market, authoritarian states have taken the opportunity to model their laws on those passed by liberal democracies.
Take, for example, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which requires large platforms to expeditiously block or remove “clearly illegal” content. According to one analysis, this law has inspired replicas in over two dozen countries, including several deemed “not free” by Freedom House.
The United States, for its part, has not always been a reliable partner. Former President Donald Trump once suggested that the US should “close that internet up” in response to terrorist recruiting online, an idea that is both nearly impossible to execute and would be better suited to North Korea than the United States.
The very serious challenges we face online too easily lead to this type of half-baked, unilateral proposal. Absent a cooperative and inclusively-developed strategy to address the layered tradeoffs inherent in these choices, the push and pull between open and closed systems will feel zero-sum to even the most well-intentioned actors. This is bad news for proponents of the “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure” internet.
The declaration is part of a broader push by the United States to come to terms with this changing status quo and get off the sidelines of the internet governance debate. In recent months, these efforts have shown their value in concrete progress toward improving privacy and ensuring the stability of international data flows.
As US government representatives themselves noted, the declaration is simply a step in an ongoing process. The absence of certain US allies from the list of signatories is one marker of how much work is still to be done. Progress made from earlier leaked iterations of the declaration to the final version is a product of learning, interagency collaboration and deep international engagement. The muscle memory built during this drafting should not be allowed to go to waste.
Far from being redundant, the text of the document is a necessary recognition of the transformation of the internet to date, and the deliberative and substantive values reinforced by its drafting will be integral to successfully face the toughest governance issues. It is now up to the signatories and their citizens to convince others to adhere to this vision, incorporate best practices in expanding and improving the multistakeholder model, seriously engage with experts on the tradeoffs inherent in the declaration’s objectives and prioritize transparency and accountability as they implement the lofty principles outlined in the declaration.
Ya’ara Barnoon is the associate program director for American University’s Tech, Law & Security Program