Liberal democracies have failed to cooperate on protecting the future of the internet from authoritarian challengers.
Despite shared values, cooperation is not as simple as commonly assumed. The EU and US, in particular, have competing policy objectives across a range of global technology policy issues.
While China is often framed as a common threat for liberal democracies, it is not a monolith: it is a partner, competitor and adversary all at once. This requires a strategy that distinguishes between issues of collaboration, competition and confrontation rather than reverting to inaccurate cold-war narratives.
Instead of putting up a united front against the rising tide of internet authoritarianism, the world’s liberal democracies have retreated inwards, prioritising battles about their own internet sovereignty over long-term protection of the open internet. Not only does this give free rein to authoritarians, it also undermines the credibility of liberal countries when they criticise other states for more restrictive internet policies, be it data-localisation requirements at one end of the spectrum, or full internet shutdowns at the other.
Why is cooperation and long-term thinking failing? First, although the US and EU are often natural allies, their objectives across a range of tech policy issues have historically been further apart than is commonly assumed. Second, the institutions designed to shape the future of the internet – both domestic government departments and international bodies – are ill-equipped to deal with an increasingly complex governance environment.
As internet companies grow, serving millions of users around the world, the need for global alignment on regulatory standards has increased. To that end, the liberal democracies of the US and EU have long seemed like they should be natural partners on technology policy. Until recently, though, transatlantic debates about global standards on tax, data privacy, competition and content moderation saw few signs of progress. This is because, across many long-term issues, they have had fundamentally different geopolitical incentives and regulatory philosophies.
The US is home to several major tech champions. Many of these are vertically integrated multinationals that are systemically important to the global internet economy. Google, for example, provides both user-focused applications and core infrastructure services. In contrast, while there are some large tech companies based in the EU, they do not have the same sort of geopolitical leverage from which the US benefits. This is a fundamental source of tension, creating battles over so-called digital sovereignty, data localisation and privacy.
For example, since the EU’s Court of Justice struck down the EU–US Privacy Shield (a transatlantic data-transfer framework), negotiations have stalled on a new deal to limit US intelligence agencies’ access to EU data. In turn, the EU has been exploring data-localisation requirements and a European cloud infrastructure, which is out of step with more liberal data storage and transfer approaches in the US, UK, Australia and Japan.
Many in the EU also still see competition investigations against US tech companies as a crucial lever to reclaim some influence on the world stage of global tech policy. This has had pushback in the US, with the Digital Trade Caucus encouraging President Biden to resist this “targeting of American companies”.
These tensions reflect broader philosophical differences. While the US is generally most concerned with avoiding bans on pro-competitive behaviour, the EU is focused on regulating anti-competitive practices. Similarly, Eric Schmidt, chair of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and former CEO of Google, recently criticised current EU proposals on AI transparency as prioritising regulation over innovation, illustrating the competing priorities on each side of the Atlantic.
The result: US–EU cooperation is much less assured than is frequently assumed. However, US attitudes towards tech regulation have shifted with the change in administration. There are now discussions around a global tax deal and a new federal privacy law while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under new chair Lina Khan, has launched several antitrust lawsuits against large technology companies. Whatever the merits of these individual steps, they have had the effect of bringing the positions of the US and EU closer together and improving prospects for cooperation.
The policy objectives challenging the assumption that cooperation between the US and Europe is certain
Tensions between China and the West are often described as a new cold war. This narrative is understandable, but misplaced. As this report has described, China’s expanding authoritarianism does pose a great challenge to the future of the internet and liberal world order. However, so far, this has not been a sufficient threat for the US and EU to put aside any other differences and focus solely on resisting China. This is illustrated by recent EU–US disagreements over the ratification of the EU–China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). While this is now faltering, and Italy has committed to review its Belt and Road Initiative deal with China, the EU remains wary of getting into a full trade war.
The truth is that binary narratives simply framing China as a common enemy are insufficient to encourage widespread agreement. China is not a monolith: it is a partner, competitor and adversary all at once. As we set out last year, responding to this reality requires a three-part strategic framework based on cooperation, competition and confrontation.
Applying this strategic framework to issues in internet geopolitics can help to cut through a debate that is often overly simplistic:
Application to Internet Internationalism
Reserve space to cooperate with China to benefit the global commons and ensure long-term stability
China is a major power and a key decision-maker in global affairs
Cooperating with China is critical to addressing key transnational challenges
Internet infrastructure in Africa
Technology supply chains (for example, semiconductors and submarine cables)
Preserve the West’s competitive edge in technology and innovation
Technology and innovation can generate economic prosperity domestically as well as geopolitical leverage internationally
Attracting the best talent internationally can also generate strong soft power culturally
Protecting multi-stakeholder bodies and resisting authoritarian technical standards
New semiconductor foundries
Investment in access infrastructure such as 6G
Speak out against China’s human-rights violations domestically and growing international aggression
Protect the international community’s norms, interests and values
Cybercrime and warfare
Authoritarian technologies, for instance, surveillance and repression tools used domestically and exported internationally
Chief among the cooperation priorities is improving internet connectivity in Africa. Not only is closing the digital divide a moral obligation, it is also in the interests of every country in the world to expand the global internet economy. It would also only cost 0.02% of OECD countries’ annual Gross National Income (GNI).
Economic benefit versus cost of achieving universal internet access by region (excluding devices)
The US, EU and others cannot force China out of this market or broader governance fora entirely, and nor do they want to or need to. While managing China’s growing influence is necessary, trying to isolate it entirely would put at risk other areas of cooperation or investment that China could provide. The goal should therefore be about making the market for infrastructure financing more competitive, rather than simply treating emerging economy infrastructure as a proxy battle. Establishing a foothold could also give liberal states insight into infrastructure projects and provide some challenge as well as an alternative option to low- and middle-income countries concerned about technologies provided by Chinese companies.