A long-time multistakeholder and international approach toward creating Internet policy is breaking down, with individual nations and some large companies increasingly deciding to go their own way and create their own rules, some Internet governance experts say.
The multistakeholder decision-making model that created the Internet’s policy standards over the last two decades has largely fallen apart, with countries pushing their own agendas related to privacy, censorship, encryption, Internet shutdowns and other issues, some of the experts said Tuesday at the State of the Net tech policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Recent efforts to keep the Internet safe for free expression and free enterprise are “mission impossible,” said Steve DelBianco, president and CEO of Internet-focused trade group NetChoice.
Back in the early 2000s, the Internet was enabling the disruption of governments and powerful businesses by providing users ways to work around those organizations, DelBianco added. “Fifteen years later, I’d have to say that governments and big businesses have regained their footing and are reasserting control,” he said.
Many nations are looking for new ways to control Internet content and users, added Laura DeNardis, a communications professor at American University and a scholar focused on Internet architecture and governance.
For many years, there have been “two clashing world views” about the Internet, but a heavy-handed government control model pushed by China and Russia seems to be gaining traction, she said. Many other countries still believe in a “free flow of information,” she said, and the clash of the two models will have wide-ranging effects on foreign policy, free expression, the digital economy, and the Internet itself.
Some countries pushing for a more sovereign control of the Internet have advanced data localization laws, and some have created local redirects in the Domain Name System as a way to drive users to government-approved sites, she noted.
These government efforts to control the Internet is a “sea change” from the previous multistakeholder, international model, DeNardis added.
The concerns from Tuesday’s panelists came about three months after Freedom House warned of a trend toward “digital authoritarianism” in a report on Internet freedom.
Countries that believe in free expression shouldn’t give up, however, said Drew Mitnick, policy counsel at digital rights group Access Now. International pressure can make countries rethink Internet shutdowns and overly aggressive cybersecurity laws, he said.
Last November, more than 60 countries, 100 companies, and 100 other organizations signed the France-sponsored Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, showing some international agreement on Internet issues, Mitnick noted. However, the U.S. did not sign on to the agreement, and French President Emmanuel Macron followed the document with a speech calling for increased censorship and for a defense against the excesses of the Internet, DelBianco noted.
Traditional allies the U.S. and European Union seem to have a diverging view of how to regulate the Internet, he added. Between Macron’s concerns about “dangerous ideas” on the Internet and the EU’S strong stance on individual privacy, Europe seems to be headed in a different direction than the U.S., he said.
The EU’s right to be forgotten, for example, gives residents the ability to have websites remove old information or links to information about them. But that right conflicts with the freedom of expression and the press valued in the U.S., with important news information sometimes removed from the public’s view in the EU, DelBianco said.
One audience member asked what Internet governance model will emerge if the international approach is dying. Some panelists urged supporters of an international, multistakeholder approach to keep fighting, while DelBianco suggested that bilateral agreements between countries may be the wave of the future.
“We can’t have this escalating battle where we block their content, and they block ours,” he said. “That doesn’t serve anyone’s best interest.”