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Tech & Digitalisation

The Open Internet on the Brink: A Model to Save Its Future

Report30th September 2021

An eight-part report that sets out international frameworks and a new model to save the global, open internet.

Key Points

The global, open internet is under threat. Restrictions on internet freedoms are increasing globally, governments are competing to assert their authority and a decades-long governance system of voluntary, technical bodies is now creaking. China is a growing competitor and adversary in many areas of internet governance yet remains an important partner in others, such as global infrastructure rollout.

Three tipping points make urgent action necessary: 1) Geopolitical competition is now playing out on hidden frontiers of conflict around the internet’s architecture – including semiconductor supply chains, submarine data cables and technical standards – which may lock in fragmentation; 2) Globally, 3.7 billion people are yet to gain internet access, but as they do the world cannot rely on US hegemony to protect the future of the internet; 3) Restrictive internet models – which include censorship, internet shutdowns and political control of the internet’s underlying architecture – are gaining ground, at a cost to the whole world.

Existing international alliances and institutions are falling short in protecting the future of the internet. Our report, presented as a series, sets out a new model of internet internationalism that reassesses states’ core interests and identifies novel coalitions that combine security guarantees with commitments towards an open internet. We recommend that:

  1. D10 countries establish a Digital Infrastructure & Defence Alliance (DIDA). This would be a novel coalition starting with, but not limited to, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the UK and US. These nations would cooperate on collective internet security and supply chains; regulatory coordination, including a mechanism to discourage internet shutdowns; cybersecurity; and global infrastructure to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Importantly, the alliance should create trade, security and economic incentives to encourage other countries to join up.

  2. The UN creates a “Strategic Geopolitical Status” designation as part of a new geopolitical settlement with global tech. Applicable to large technology firms with global geopolitical importance, this would require the creation of a self-regulatory, industry-wide body, with Permanent Observer status at the UN. Firms would also be required to set out an explicit “international policy” detailing their roles as proponents of an open internet.

  3. The UN, D10 and Strategic Geopolitical Status firms establish a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Internet Policy (MPIP), modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to oversee the ecosystem. Composed of nation-states, civil-society organisations and industry, the MPIP would provide an early-warning system about the health of global information and communication networks. Additionally, it would evaluate progress on reforms, including institutional, where a lack of accountability has traditionally held them back.

  4. All countries, at minimum the D10, create foreign-policy strategies integrating digital, data and technology into diplomacy. This would include empowering a new cadre of technology diplomats and ambassadors to align siloed approaches to internet and foreign policy, and to build state capacity to enable coordination across global-technology issues including cybersecurity, technical standards and platform regulation.

Chapter 1

Foreword by Tony Blair

Harnessing the technological revolution in support of progress is one of the fundamental imperatives of the 21st century. Just as roads and railways connected towns and villages that once lived in isolation, the open internet now connects nations and communities. It allows for new forms of trade, new exchange of knowledge and ideas, and new channels to communicate and coordinate for the betterment of those willing to share.

But the technological revolution has been a global phenomenon unlike any other. Now, in response to the disruptive power of the open internet, new types of control are emerging. These can take many forms – from the responsible and necessary regulation of online platforms to make them safer and more accountable, to heavy political censorship or internet shutdowns that are increasingly used by authoritarian regimes. Put together, this leads to a great fragmentation in the global internet, and it is a fragmentation happening at the technical layer, the philosophical layer and the political layer.

The global trend over the past five years has been more restrictive internet models. Yet leaders should beware that such controls are illusory and short-sighted: as this report shows, there is no path to prosperity enabled by technology that also undermines core internet freedoms.

Faced with this new reality, the world’s liberal democracies, instead of putting up a progressive, united front against the rising tide of internet authoritarianism, have retreated inwards, prioritising battles about their own internet sovereignty over long-term protection of the open internet.

The idea of recreating digital borders to replicate national ones has been picked up by governments across the world. At first it seems persuasive but on closer examination doesn’t survive contact with technical or economic reality and is often an internet-era re-articulation of protectionism.  

This report sets out a new model of “internet internationalism”, which seeks to close the digital divide, bringing the 3.7 billion people without internet access online through global cooperation, and to build new alliances capable of preserving the economic and social benefits of the internet, while addressing the real need states have for solutions to online safety, cybersecurity and semiconductor supply chains.

It is also the time for the world’s largest tech companies to step up and take responsibility. The global technology industry needs to be much better at conceptualising and being accountable for the impacts of what is akin to their own foreign policies, and actively uphold liberal values in international governance institutions.

The lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the institutions of the 20th century are fundamentally mismatched to the challenges of the 21st century. To tackle increasingly complex crises such as climate change, pandemics and global poverty, we need new tools, new ideas and an interconnected global system capable of harnessing the technological revolution. Nationalism, fragmentation and protectionism will leave the world’s citizens behind. Part of this must be a new mindset that looks to protect the entire internet ecosystem. Taking a truly internationalist approach will help tilt the future towards a more progressive, sustainable, universally accessible and globally beneficial internet.

Tony Blair
Executive Chairman

Chapter 2

Understanding the Problem

Today, just over half the world’s population – 51 per cent – is connected to the internet. It represents the world’s most important economic and social infrastructure, enabling public services, businesses large and small, and global communities to operate at scale. But the principles of openness, permission-less innovation and resilience upon which the internet was founded are now faltering. Increasing restrictions on freedoms, regulatory and technical fragmentation, and a new era of geopolitical competition have left the open internet on the brink.

Political discussion about technology almost exclusively focuses on the issues that most visibly affect the public and the economy, such as content moderation, competition, tax and data privacy. These are serious and demand attention, but progressive leaders should also be concerned about the challenges that lie beneath the surface.

The stability of the global, open, interoperable internet has long depended on US hegemony, but this is increasingly giving way to a multipolar world where powerful states, emerging economies, industry, voluntary forums, multilateral bodies and crypto innovators each have a stake in the future. Both overt and covert tactics by these actors to gain control over the internet – often through small, imperceptible steps – threaten its future potential.

Global leaders need a new framework to navigate a world increasingly shaped by tensions over issues such as semiconductor supply chains, submarine cables and technical standards; the immense geopolitical power of today’s largest technology companies; and the expansion of authoritarian internet models, driven predominantly by China but gaining ground across emerging economies.

While the internet has primarily been developed, maintained and governed by voluntary technical bodies for decades, in the face of these new challenges this model is creaking. In response, both liberal and authoritarian countries are stepping into the vacuum, seeking to assert influence. At one end of the spectrum, instead of putting up a united front to safeguard the open, global, interoperable internet, many liberal democracies have turned inwards, prioritising their own internal battles over internet sovereignty, as seen in plans for localised data infrastructures. At the other, China has adopted an overtly authoritarian model – facilitated by infrastructure investment, social-policy design and standards development – which it is encouraging low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to adopt.

These challenges present stark, urgent risks: without an effective response, electronics shortages will continue, small businesses and high-growth start-ups won’t be able to compete in international markets, and 3.7 billion people who do not yet have an internet connection may not gain access to the full benefits and freedoms of the global internet. In the long term, the cooperation necessary to tackle the climate crisis and future health crises such as pandemics will also suffer if solutions that rely on frictionless data-sharing and communication cannot come to the fore.

However, neither the perception of systemic complexity nor the challenge of international cooperation should deter countries, companies and voluntary bodies from seeking solutions. Recent G7 negotiations on a global tax deal and EU–US collaboration on trade and technology policies have shown that leaders have both the agency and opportunity to shape the underlying internet ecosystem. But acting urgently is all the more important because we are fast approaching three underlying tipping points:

1. Locked-In Fragmentation: The ideological divide between the regulatory models of the US, EU, China and others is often described as the “splinternet”. However, there are also hidden frontiers of conflict around the internet’s architecture, including semiconductor supply chains, submarine data cables and technical standards. In contrast to regulation, which can be aligned at any time, decisions about these underlying structures cannot be reversed in the future without significant upheaval and economic cost. This means fragmentation and friction may be locked into the internet’s architecture for good.

2. Emerging Internet Economies: Approximately 3.7 billion people still have no access to the internet. The LMICs that are home to most of this group will come to determine the future of the internet as connectivity increases and, on the current trajectory, it is likely they will receive the necessary financing from China. In the long run, progressive leaders can no longer rely on waning US hegemony to secure the internet’s long-term health. Instead, they must identify novel alliances to stabilise it through global interdependence.

3. Restrictive Models Are Costly and Gaining Ground: As states have increased their capacity to monitor populations, control the private lives of citizens, censor access and remove the benefits of a digital life entirely, the human rights costs have been significant. Authoritarian models have proved effective at shutting down dissent, and as a result of minimal international challenge they now are expanding. But such restrictions come with high domestic costs, stunting the trust in infrastructure required for e-commerce, foreign investment and innovation while reducing the potential of economic betterment for all. There are also immense costs to the global economy and the international community’s foreign-policy capability, which are often overlooked by the liberal countries who are affected.

Follow the series below as we set out a progressive way forward to move beyond the challenges the internet faces. By renewing global cooperation and institutions, proposing new responsibilities for the global technology industry, and upgrading domestic approaches to technology governance and foreign policy, we can protect and promote the open, global, interoperable internet for the long term.

Also available in French translation


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