How Biden can make his internet freedom agenda a success

FILE PHOTO: A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden via video link, at a restaurant in Beijing, China November 16, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo

As it convenes its much-anticipated Summit for Democracy this week, the Biden administration was set to launch a new Alliance for the Future of the Internet, a bid to rally the world’s democracies around a set of principles that support an open web. The launch of that alliance has now been delayed after civil society activists and even some officials in the U.S. government raised concerns that the new initiative would draw scarce resources away from existing fora dedicated to the advancement of internet freedom, deepen distrust between like-minded actors, and undermine the digital rights of those who live in repressive societies. 

The decision to pause the alliance’s launch offers the Biden administration an opportunity to reconsider the proposal and to better ground it in existing human rights norms. If established thoughtfully, the alliance could play an important role in pushing back on autocratic efforts to reshape the internet into an instrument of state control and in promoting an affirmative, positive agenda for internet governance in service of democratic values. By delaying the launch, the administration has created an opportunity to address well-founded concerns among civil society that the initiative risks undermining the very principles it seeks to promote. With that in mind, here are three ways that the administration can ensure that the Alliance for the Future of the Internet is a success. 

Ensure that it is multistakeholder, not just multilateral  

In its early plans, the administration appears to have adopted a largely government-to-government approach to tackle a problem that requires a multistakeholder effort—one that recognizes that companies, human rights activists, and academic experts each have important roles to play. Especially in places where democracy is backsliding, such as India and Brazil, or where government capacity is weak, civil society leaders are likely to be the initiative’s most constructive allies. That’s because they are often among the best-informed elements of their local internet governance ecosystems, with considerable substantive expertise. According to a planning document obtained by Politico, the administration recognizes that the alliance requires a multistakeholder approach, but a proposed timeline for the project called for first drafting proposals with a small group of countries before soliciting input from civil society.  

With the alliance on hold, the Biden administration now has an opportunity to engage with non-governmental stakeholders in the multiple fora dedicated to the advancement of an open internet where they are already meeting, including the Open Government Partnership and Freedom Online Coalition. The latter effort, launched in 2011, constitutes a group of more than 30 governments that have made commitments to support free expression, assembly, and privacy online that could be important allies, particularly when it comes to carrying out diplomatic coordination.  

Root the initiative in existing rights principles  

According to the leaked planning document, the Biden administration appears to have conceptualized the alliance as an effort to further “a new coherent vision for the future of the internet.” But this framing could pose a problem, since Russia and China actively argue that a “new vision” is precisely what is needed. Across many facets of their multidimensional competition with liberal democracies, and especially in the digital domain, Russia and China endeavor to undermine existing, rights-respecting norms and the U.S.-led architecture that supports them and to promote new ones that align with their own repressive approaches to governance. 

The proliferation of regimes to govern the internet is rapidly leading to a splintering of the web. Instead of a global internet that knits together users in countries around the world, architectures favored by countries like Russia and China threaten to create sovereign digital domains, such that users in one country experience an online landscape far different than in another. The administration may be trying to develop a coherent vision that limits how much fragmentation takes place among democratic partners, but by suggesting that its proposed alliance aims to “[offer] the benefits of an open Internet for those who adhere to basic principles and protections, while declining those benefits to non-adherent nations,” the Biden administration risks contributing to fragmentation more broadly. 

A rights-respecting framework should advance the digital liberty of all individuals, no matter where they live. That includes rights defenders operating in authoritarian contexts. Rather than casting the effort as an attempt to establish fresh norms, the initiative should be firmly grounded in existing ones, such as the Universal Declaration on Human rights and UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which have the force of international law. The White House could, for example, frame the initiative as an effort to generate new, much-needed commitments toward making good on existing principles. Doing so would avoid boosting Russia and China’s arguments in favor of new approaches and strengthen efforts to maintain the global, interoperable nature of the internet.  

Remedy gaps in adherence to internet freedom principles  

The administration should be careful not to cast its efforts in a way that could be construed as lecturing its partners on internet freedom. That is especially the case given that there are genuine debates among the United States and its partners over internet governance issues. For example, Australia and the United Kingdom have each recently taken steps to establish powerful online regulators vested with the ability to force social media platforms to take down content they deem harmful. From an American perspective, these approaches infringe on rights to expression and set dangerous precedents that are likely to be used by less-than-free governments to justify restrictive regimes of their own. Meanwhile, Europeans, who generally consider the privacy of communications and the protection of personal data to be fundamental rights, view the United States’s data protection safeguards as inadequate. 

The administration could use the year of action ahead as an opportunity to galvanize commitments among alliance countries to live up to principles of internet freedom, including by identifying and remedying undemocratic approaches to technology governance at home. These gaps erode the moral high ground and create opportunities that autocrats and other threat actors proactively exploit. 

The Biden administration’s efforts to launch an alliance of like-minded countries on matters of internet governance comes on the heels of a Trump administration that prioritized questions of network security over the United States’ historic commitment to a free, open, interoperable web. Some in civil society argue that the Biden administration’s emphasis on “trusted” networks has embraced this thinking, which risks undermining interoperability and furthering the so-called “splinternet.” By pausing the alliance’s launch, the administration has a chance to reconcile these tensions and ensure that network-security initiatives are in line with its broader commitments to the open web.  

Looking forward 

With its proposal, the administration has articulated a welcome sense of urgency and opportunity.  Russia and China are actively advancing their own vision for the future of the internet—one that does not respect the rights to expression and privacy on which democracy depends. The United States and its partners should promote an open internet first and foremost because it is the right thing to do and is concordant with democratic values—but also because freedom online puts autocrats, who are vulnerable to open flows of information, on the back foot. 

Rather than launch a new institution and new set of principles, the administration should use the Summit for Democracy as an opportunity to start a conversation with governments, industry leaders, and civil society experts that aims to identify where existing efforts are falling short and how they can be supplemented and strengthened. That conversation, if carried through the year of action ahead, can help generate meaningful new commitments toward advancing freedom online. In doing so, it can be an important component of efforts to secure the rights of billions of people around the world and push back on autocratic advances the digital domain. 

Jessica Brandt is policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.