The battle over net neutrality is rightfully capturing headlines in Washington and worldwide. Far less attention is being paid, however, to a looming threat that could have an even greater impact on the future: The Internet has outstripped the ability of governments to keep up. On issues as diverse as hate speech, espionage and copyright infringement, governments fear a loss of sovereignty in a fast-moving digital world. On taxation and privacy rights, Government 1.0 can’t stay abreast of Technology 4.0.
In response, many governments are erecting national and regional barriers that could cripple the openness at the heart of the Internet. Some of these barriers come from well-intentioned governments trying to protect their citizens and economies, such as those disinclined to trade information about criminal cases and copyright protection. Others, such as unilateral blocking of social media sites in China, Iran and Turkey, are used by authoritarian leaders to stifle dissent and protect their own power.
Neither of these dangers is abstract. Most people agree on the basic principles of an open Internet. We have seen the great wealth the digital economy has brought to many countries and people. We benefit from the innovations that have built corporations, employed hundreds of thousands and changed our daily lives. And we recognize the vital voice granted by the Internet to people defending their human rights. All of that — and more — is at risk if the Internet is fragmented by governments trying to extend their sovereignty across cyberspace through conflicting laws, regulations and standards.
Fights are already emerging over efforts by some countries to block content, require that certain kinds of digital data be kept on local servers, and exert legal and economic authority over the broad digital world. For example, criminals increasingly use the Internet to communicate and to carry out crimes. This means law enforcement officials need greater access to digital data for investigations and prosecution. Yet cooperation among governments and tech companies has not kept up with the globalization. Similarly, there are no universal standards for responding to massive data breaches that leave consumers in some jurisdictions in the dark.
A snapshot of recent cases illustrates the emerging conflicts. In the United States, courts have ordered tech companies to turn over data housed in other countries. Some decisions have been reversed, but the trend continues. In May, the European Union will impose sweeping new restrictions on the collection and use of personal data on every company doing business in the E.U., regardless of its location. Among the requirements will be notifying users of data breaches within 72 hours. In December, Mexico’s Supreme Court asserted that Mexican courts have jurisdiction over Google because its Internet postings have repercussions for Mexican citizens. The same month, the United Kingdom’s minister for state security and economic crime threatened to tax tech companies for “inaction” on extremism.
No responsible individual or policymaker should want the Internet to turn into a lawless frontier where anything goes. But taken together, whether well-meaning or ill-intentioned, the unilateral actions by governments will inevitably reduce the dynamism and innovation of the Internet.
The absence of a coherent, global approach to Internet governance threatens everything from human rights and legitimate law enforcement to cybersecurity and economic prosperity. Uncoordinated approaches have the potential to spill over into every aspect of the digital economy. Attempts to resolve these thorny issues face obstacles erected by governments and corporations. The effort at the United Nations to create global cyber rules have stalled. Unilateral actions like the forthcoming E.U. rules are causing concern among tech companies that fear higher costs and lost revenue even as they are applauded by privacy advocates.
How do we counter this trend toward what some dub the “splinternet?” Like every global issue, this one requires a global solution. Working at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and at the State Department during the Obama administration, I saw the benefits of broad-based discussions about multipronged issues. Consensus is never easy, but it provides the best chance of lasting success. For instance, at the OECD I led the effort to persuade 35 member countries to accept an eight-page plan to implement the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, an agreement approved in 2015 by every U.N. country. It took nearly a year to convince the OECD countries that issues like reducing inequality and eradicating poverty, two of the SDGs, applied to them as well as developing nations.
In the case of preserving the value and enormous future potential of the Internet, policymakers, regulators, industry leaders, scientists and the public should be asking what sort of framework will both safeguard legitimate government interests and protect the open Internet. Solutions won’t be easy. As more and more of our economy and government functions become digitized, tensions over cross-border access to data are rising. The United States is involved in ongoing discussions with the E.U. and with the U.K. on complementary approaches, but differences remain. Similarly, China’s unilateral restrictions on Internet content have forced tech companies to sacrifice independence for access. Failure to establish global rules could spark a legal arms race in which every single actor tries to solve the challenges of the Internet on their own. What is required is a transnational policy process to preserve the character of the Internet, harmonize laws and regulations, and enable the continued expansion of digital economy in ways that are both innovative and inclusive. Fortunately, that discussion is underway. The G-7 and G-20 countries as well as the E.U. and 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have committed to working together to preserve the open Internet by closing digital divides and encouraging cross-border cooperation.
On Feb. 26, senior representatives from a wide range of governments, businesses and nongovernment groups will convene in Ottawa to work on translating those commitments into policies and standards that will preserve the cross-border nature of the Internet, fight abuses and protect human rights.
Building on a similar conference in 2016 and the commitments of leading countries, the goal is to establish a road map for how to address the potential problems created by the Internet without losing the benefits of its open and interoperable nature and without crippling the global digital economy. This means addressing issues as wide-ranging as cross-border access to user data and rules for domain suspension to what qualifies as legitimate content restrictions.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some governments will remain outliers, as they do on current human rights standards, for example. It won’t be easy finding a consensus most governments can sign onto. But the question is not whether we should do something. The question is can we afford not to act.