Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine recently argued for more democratic cooperation worldwide on technology issues, internet policy included. However, their call rings hollow—cooperation to what end? Indeed, simply moving out without a more coherent strategy may well do more harm than good. They are certainly correct that “Washington has struggled to develop a coherent vision to guide its global technological role,” but any coalition-building must be premised on a renewed and realistic assessment of the internet, one that links democratic principles to political and technical objectives. To produce this, American policymakers must be willing to reevaluate U.S. wishes and assumptions about the global internet itself. In sum, such a strategy must rebuild, for the internet age, what the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop and, later, author of the Long Telegram, George Kennan, referred to as a city on the hill, articulating and resourcing a positive vision for what the internet must become amidst competing demands for change. For the incoming Biden administration, it will be vital to assert and revitalize a democratic internet model without imitating the last four years’ mistakes or resorting to the same state control that is fracturing the internet today.
Throughout the last thirty years, the five principles of freedom, openness, interoperability, security, and resilience have putatively formed important, if not immutable, parameters for the U.S. government’s approach to internet policymaking. But there is no readily articulated democratic internet model and most potential examples remain full of contradictions, e.g. failing to reconcile an internet that is both open and secure. All the while, the Chinese government has a far more coherently messaged model of the internet, one where the response to perceived problems and collateral harms is clamping down on the internet’s digital and physical infrastructure. The coherence of Beijing’s internet model, and the comparatively diffuse and discordant democratic alternatives, are only contributing to the global drive towards greater internet control and fragmentation.
America should commit to restoring and defending these five core principles, written into the very networks of the internet, as a means of asserting moral leadership. To do so, Washington needs a foreign policy for the internet that advances a vision for the internet that speaks to the language of trust and embraces the need to focus on the role of individuals, grasps the utility of iterating small changes instead of grand bargains, and embraces the reality that the clock cannot be turned back. This strategic product must do more than reject the sovereign and controlled authoritarian internet model, based on principles of tight state control over internet data routing, tight state control over data storage, and limited content freedom. A foreign policy for the internet must build on not just U.S. government agencies but allies and partners overseas, and leverage the influence that the American tech industry has over internet infrastructure. It must realistically address the shortfalls and risks of a free and open internet but seek to maximize and revitalize that internet’s benefits—across everything from speech to commerce. A foreign policy for the internet should rest on three assumptions; there are myriad others but these three are systemically significant.
First, policymakers must center on the fact that individuals play a vital role in the internet. This means bringing individual engineers, academic teams, and civil society organizations more tightly into the implementation of any foreign policy for the internet. This also means not conflating companies and individuals, where the private sector is not a stand-in for unaffiliated individual designers, network operators, and researchers. The internet is shaped by protocols determined by hand signals in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), core technologies developed and once maintained by academics, and a community of network operators whose rough consensus and running code determine the outcome of DDoS attacks and the bandwidth available for Game of Thrones.
The private sector dominates the technical influence over and understanding of the internet at the same time as the state owns clear responsibility to protect and advance the public good. In the IETF, having individuals that can advocate for free, open, interoperable internet standards is vital for shaping the internet’s overall state. Similarly, it is the individual diplomats in the United Nations and other multilateral bodies whose contributions underpin the defense, or lack thereof, of free and open internet norms worldwide. Yet the internet is constituted by individuals, a number of whom were crucially responsible for its design, maintenance, and security. Ultimately, it is the social layer that provides the most useful signals of need, intent, and value; it is users who represent the ultimate equity.
Second, a constructive U.S. foreign policy for the internet will yield a more equitable and effective impact where changes start small and iterate rapidly. The United States government cannot and should not suddenly force U.S. firms to secure core internet protocols overnight, but by incrementally using procurement powers and public-private engagements, Washington can leverage Silicon Valley’s infrastructural control to boost global internet security in step with allies. An example of this is leveraging protections for the Border Gateway Protocol, the internet’s “GPS,” as enumerated in the Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security. While strong state control of online content is likewise undesirable, carefully calibrated, incremental changes to platform governance law may be more effective in the long-run than waiting to develop one silver bullet regulatory response. The internet is a big place, and there are few true points of systemic leverage across the global ecosystem. But the flip side is that the internet is remarkably adaptive. Witness the unprecedented volume of traffic sent rocketing from house to house during the pandemic lockdown of 2020: over the span of a few weeks, a significant percentage world’s population moved their workspace to the end of an internet connection. The internet is in a constant state of change and successful reform, and even widespread ones (like adopting more robust cryptographic standards or secure routing protocols) find greater effect in a multitude of nudges.
Third, both policymakers and industry must recognize that we are not going back. The internet of today is generations removed from its birth as a commercial network, the dot-com bubble, or even the early days of cloud computing. The present reality is an internet that is more concentrated, more frequently under assault, and substantially more consequential as traffic now heads to medical devices and city-scale power generators as well as to laptops and smartphones.
There is no taking the internet back to an earlier state—we must identify a principled vision of how the internet can evolve and move forward. These principles must be embedded in the current policy context and anticipate geopolitical and technical disruptions to the extent possible, to form the starting point of a foreign policy for the internet. Edge intelligence, where decentralized nodes in a network can intelligently make decisions without referring to some centralized “brain,” remains a tremendous defense against the kind of centralized control that can enable tyranny and hinder innovation. Practitioners in the United States and those in allied countries must weigh the imposition of information controls and content filters against their precedent-setting effect on both authoritarian states and private sector firms.
The internet reflects the chaos of the human soul; there is maddening darkness alongside the light in its wires. Proponents of an open internet increasingly grapple with the price of that freedom and openness online. This moment in history offers an opportunity for the United States and its allies to revitalize the internet along the lines of five principles—free, open, interoperable, secure, resilient—for the modern era. Together with partners across the globe, America “must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of sort of world we would like to see” much as it did some seventy years ago. There is no going alone on this and the United States must advance a vision for the internet together with allies and partners in the private sector. The consequences of failure may only be exceeded by the failure to act at all.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.
Trey Herr, PhD, is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.