The US must broaden its internet strategy beyond China

U.S. President Joe Biden waves to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as they begin a virtual meeting from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Though beset by delay, the Alliance for the Future of the Internet has been pitched by the Biden administration as an effort to “provide an affirmative positive agenda for the future of the global internet.” At least, that’s the official position. Many in civil society view the initiative skeptically and are concerned that amid growing competition between Washington and Beijing, the alliance is more about countering Chinese influence over strategic technologies than it is about articulating a positive vision for the future of the internet.

Going into 2022, the continued openness of the internet faces myriad challenges—and not just from China’s efforts to advance its vision of a web with greater top-down control. Some of the key conflicts around maintaining internet openness will take place in the coming year at the United Nations, where Russia and China have succeeded in elevating their roles in internet governance. A series of intergovernmental high-level meetings this year may reshape how the international community understands the concept of internet openness. Two competing approaches will be on display: China’s view of a “fair and equitable” internet based on global cooperation—in other words, an internet the Chinese government can control top-down; and the U.S. and Western view that advocates for an internet that “promotes core democratic values and respect for human rights.”

Amid the focus in Washington on a diplomacy aimed at reducing Chinese influence over key technologies, it is essential that U.S. officials take a wide view of how to ensure the internet’s openness. The Alliance for the Future of the Internet may well turn into an important vehicle for online freedom, but the coming year will present a myriad of challenges in a variety of governance bodies that will have important ramifications for the future of the web. It is essential that the United States remain engaged in the work of these standard-setting and diplomatic bodies and that the alliance not crowd out this diplomatic legwork.

While U.S. officials haven’t said so explicitly, the alliance appears to be motivated in large part by countering China’s growing influence over the global technology ecosystem—a concern that animates much of Washington’s international engagement on internet issues lately. On paper, much of this discussion has taken place under the banner of promoting “democratic values” and promoting and protecting “internet openness.” According to a U.S. non-paper obtained by Politico, the alliance was meant “to advance democratic values and the rule of law by offering the benefits of an open internet for those who adhere to basic principles and protections, while declining those benefits to non-adherent nations.” U.S. allies have adopted similar language, as when G7 countries committed last year to “collaborate together in a way that reinforces our open and democratic values.” At the core of Europe’s strategy lies the idea of an open internet.

While the concept of “openness” is key to all these statements, what it means exactly is unclear. Strategic documents authored by the United States and its allies emphasize concepts like human rights, the idea that internet traffic should be treated without prioritization or discrimination (the “net neutrality” principle), or the need for the free flow of information. The G7, for example, calls for open standards processes and “collaboration on how democratic governments and stakeholders can support the development of digital technical standards that […] will guide the development of a free, open and secure Internet.”  When the U.S. released a statement of joint principles with the Quad (India, Japan, and Australia) last September, it once again touted the importance of an open technology ecosystem—while dropping the reference to “global” altogether.

Building diplomatic consensus around what is meant by “openness” represents a key challenge for Washington. The United States models its vision for openness on its own democratic ideals, but on the international stage American values don’t hold the appeal they once had. A tarnished American democracy—damaged in part by political polarization and misinformation fueled in part by U.S.-made online platforms—makes American concepts of online freedom far less appealing than they once were, as does the lack of a strong U.S. consumer privacy law and tech regulation in general. The European Union is applying its values in building a regulatory machine for the web that breaks with American concepts of free speech. And Chinese and Russian concepts of internet control hold their own appeal for governments fearful of what an empowered online public might do. Others yet, like India, are committed to charting what they see as a “fourth way” around issues like data privacy.

These differing visions of how the internet should be governed are shaping international diplomacy on the issue. Russia has capitalized on the United States’ recent neglect of diplomacy at the United Nations to use the world body to draft a cybercrime treaty that aims to codify greater state control of the internet. In January, the First Session of the Ad Hoc Committee was set to meet in New York to establish a convention to counter “the issue of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes”; the meeting was postponed for April due to COVID. This convening is the outcome of a 2019 Russian UN resolution, which established a process for considering a cybercrime treaty and set forth a vision for the internet that the Russian Foreign Ministry argued “enhances states’ digital sovereignty over their information space and ushers in a new page in the history of global efforts to counter cybercrime.” Though U.S. diplomacy regarding tech issues remains mostly focused on Beijing, the Russian government continues to undermine the global internet, push for greater state control over the web globally, and encourage other states to exert more control over the web within their borders so Moscow has more cover to do the same.

Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to consider the words “treaty,” “United Nations,” and “the internet” all in one sentence, but Russian cyber diplomacy has made surprising headway toward codifying a treaty that would have major ramifications for the global internet. The closest the United Nations had ever come to substantive internet governance policymaking was its support for the Internet Governance Forum, an annual gathering of global stakeholders to discuss issues pertaining to the internet. While a number of working groups have discussed issues of cybersecurity, no process has ever managed to produce binding rules. Over the years, various member states have deployed different tactics to engage the UN more in the overall management of the internet, but the pushback from countries supporting the multi-stakeholder model has persisted. In this instance, the timing was excellent. With the United States almost invisible at the United Nations for the duration of the previous administration, and with an increasing mistrust towards the internet around the world, Russia and China have managed to convince a host of nations that states should take more affirmative action.

Many other threats to internet openness loom. In recent weeks, Kazakhstan became the latest country to shut down the internet, stifling the free flow of information while suppressing protests. Dozens of countries now have data localization laws that require data on their citizens to be stored domestically, threatening to alter the flow of data across borders. Telecommunications companies in Iran, Russia, and China continue to hijack the highly vulnerable Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), the internet’s “GPS” for traffic, to misroute reams of global internet traffic through their borders for likely interception. The Russian government has required many foreign tech companies to open local offices, so that the authorities can threaten employees on the ground when companies don’t comply with the Kremlin’s dictates. Other states have used the same tactic, as when the Modi government raided one of Twitter’s offices in India when the company resisted censorship demands.

Internet openness is also being contested in other international fora where Beijing is active. In March, the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will be hosting the World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA) in Geneva, where participant countries will define the new leadership team and the sector’s work program for the next four years. The WTSA has tiptoed toward discussing internet issues before, and in the 2016 meeting, member states expressed an intention to address issues related to privacy and trust, the global naming system, the internet of things, and internet services, including over-the-top services, such as streaming platforms.

While the ITU has so far taken no significant action on internet governance, its members are searching for ways to use the UN body to advance their agendas. The Chinese telecom giant Huawei, for example, introduced, with the support of the Chinese government an advanced proposal for a “New IP” that is designed to build “intrinsic security” into the internet by increasing top-down control over internet addressing. Although the proposal was rejected, it has not gone away and is expected to re-emerge, rebranded and refocused. Between Sept. 26 to Oct. 14, Romania will be the host of the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference, which will see countries meeting “to set the direction of digital transformation for years to come.” The agenda for the body’s 193 member states includes “global radio spectrum allocation, the creation of global technical standards for information and communication technology (ICT) networks and services, and efforts to promote digital inclusion in under-served communities.” At the plenipotentiary, member states vote to elect the ITU’s new secretary general. There are two candidates: one from the United States, one from Russia.

The United States must continue advocating for an open internet, but at the same time, the U.S. government must realize that the challenges the internet faces are not limited to China. Using a range of intentions and tactics, many other actors besides the Chinese government are working to undermine the internet’s openness, and many countries in the Global South and elsewhere are not convinced by U.S. arguments about the digital threats posed by Beijing. The United States must step up by increasing investment and engagement in cyber diplomacy at the UN, by engaging more in international standards-setting processes, and by enacting meaningful regulation of the political and economic power of major technology companies.

Historically, the power of the internet has been its global reach and openness. Without these features, the internet risks being subject to the whims of authoritarian states, and its infrastructure will lack robustness and resilience. The alliance may be the venue to build a more global, open internet, but if it is to accomplish that task, it must be restructured to include greater civil society involvement. When the United States advocates for an open internet, it must be both realistic and visionary. To achieve internet openness, there are no shortcuts.

Konstantinos Komaitis (@kkomaitis) is a veteran of developing and analysing Internet policy and a policy fellow at the Brave New Software Project. 
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.