April 15, 2024

Future Internet Declaration is for faltering democracies, not China and Russia

On April 28, the Biden administration announced a new global partnership that sets standards for nation-states’ use of technology: the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. While the statement might seem like a rebuke to the digital authoritarianism of Russia and China, it is much more likely to warn faltering democracies of Internet transgressions.

He statement It was signed by 61 nations and aims to establish a code of practice for how democratic countries should interact with the web. The declaration’s Internet vision is broad: it aims to promote universal Internet access, protect human rights, ensure fair economic competition, design a secure digital infrastructure, promote pluralism and freedom of expression, and ensure a multi-pronged approach. stakeholders for Internet governance. While this is an ambitious scope for a three-page non-binding document, the priorities are admirable and reflect the diverse interests of the signatories. This is especially notable when compared to a initial draft leaked in 2021, which was much more focused on the economic interests of the United States.

At a glance, it’s easy to see why a lot news coverage framed the agreement in opposition to China and Russia, as some Biden officials have presented the declaration as an alternative to the digital authoritarianism model. This contextualization also clearly aligns with the mentality of strategic competition towards China, which is prominently occupied by some members of the Biden administration. However, China and Russia will almost certainly ignore this statement. The Biden administration knows this and is most likely trying to affect the behavior of wavering democratic nations that have committed questionable, if not downright authoritarian, Internet transgressions.

No nation on the list seems dramatically out of place, yet many of the participating countries cannot boast an impeccable record on Internet freedoms. Colombia’s digital freedoms have increased recently. declining stateand especially worrying are the efforts of the Colombian army to expand online surveillance of journalists and politicians. Niger, despite completing its first peaceful and democratic process transition of power In 2021, it also experienced around 10 days of state-initiated internet blackout. Hungary, apparently the most reluctant signatory in the EU, journalists attacked with Pegasus, a highly invasive spyware system. Israel is guilty of approving the sale of Pegasus not only to Hungary but also to Mexico, where it may have been used in mass surveillance of government criticsand Saudi Arabia, which infamously used spyware in its plot to surveil and then murder Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post journalist (Mexico and Saudi Arabia are not signatories). Oh, also, the former president of the United States is predominantly responsible by an online disinformation campaign that has undermined faith in the nation’s core democratic process.

These are certainly worrying behaviors for democratic nations, but they are symptoms of an ongoing struggle for democratic preservation, not the presence of more systemic digital authoritarianism as in China or Russia. It is in these cases where the declaration can make a difference at the political margins. This is especially true if the participants in the statement remain united. By privately and publicly criticizing these state behaviors, as well as offering legitimacy to pro-democratic voices that resist state overreach, the coalition of signatories may be able to tip the balance.

There are signs from the Biden administration that this more modest goal is the project’s true ambition. In the White House statement launch event, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that “it’s not… what we’re against, it’s what we’re for.” “It is an affirmative vision.” Sullivan maintains that the statement is about the behavior of the signatories, not the rest of the world.

Comments from Tim Wu, a White House special assistant who co-leads this initiative, also support this interpretation. in a prepared speech At the Internet Governance Forum in December 2021, Wu asked: What should be the duties and responsibilities of a nation-state with respect to the Internet? He then went on to list specific practices that democratic states should overcome, including state-tolerated misinformation, internet shutdowns, online radicalization, economic concentration, and government surveillance. All of these harms can be illustrated, of course, by at least one of the signatories of the declaration. However, it is clear from Wu’s speech that the immediate objective of the declaration is not China but, rather, to improve the behavior of the signatory nations and those nations that can realistically aspire to join.

The reason for pointing this out is not to argue that the statement is hypocritical, but rather to point out that it can have impact, especially if it leads to a more self-critical conversation within this group of nations, in which we directly and, if necessary, identify publicly violating the principles of the declaration. Of course, without this frank discussion, critics call the statement “redundant and distracting” will be right, especially since the declaration does not include enforcement mechanisms.

The White House is right to think it is worth renewing the effort. According to Freedom House, global Internet freedom has rejected for 11 consecutive years. Unfortunately, the decline is not limited to the web, as the global recession in democracy continues unabated. freedom house writes that “nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country facing decline” in 2021. One metric places the overall height of democracy in 2012, suggesting a full decade of decline. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index noted global democracy at its lowest point since the index began in 2006. Another study suggests that the average citizen of the world is experiencing the same level of democracy as in 1990, during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At best, the expansion and modern configuration of the Internet has emerged at the same time as this enormous challenge to the democratic world. Most likely he contributed to it. TO meta-analysis of nearly 500 research studies found that digital media has led to declining institutional trust, increasing polarization, and an advantageous environment for populists in established democracies. A ongoing literature review Examining the interaction between social media and democracy points in one direction similar address. Therefore, not only is there democratic backsliding both online and offline, but there may also be a self-perpetuating interaction between the two.

This is the terrible context to which the Biden administration is responding. It is also clear proof that the Future of the Internet Declaration is not enough, although the effort is valuable. It still pales in comparison to the comprehensive regulatory systems for online platforms that the European Union is putting in place through the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, the AI ​​Act and others. Furthermore, it is not sufficiently supported by an explicitly pro-democratic technology policy agenda, although the White House is making related efforts to expand them. high speed internet accessfinance research and development privacy-preserving technologiesand enforce more consumer protections.

Despite its non-binding nature and lack of enforcement, this declaration is better than none. The Declaration for the Future of the Internet shows at least a marked and renewed interest in fighting for the Internet’s potential for democracy, certainly an improvement over the previous two presidential administrations. If the Biden administration and the coalition of signatories are willing to continue tough conversations that reject digital transgressions, then there will be progress to be made for the future of the Internet.

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