On April 28, the Biden administration led 60 countries to sign a “Statement for the Future of the Internet†
The stated goal of promoting a positive vision for the Internet in the 21st century, a vision based on the democratic values of openness, inclusion and human rights, is worth pursuing and commendable. However, the lack of a public process to develop the statement represents a missed opportunity for US leadership and casts doubt on the credibility of the Biden administration.
For nearly 25 years, the United States has been at the forefront of international technology policy making. The United States led a series of groundbreaking achievements in collaborative policy-making, bringing nations, the private sector, civil society and the average citizen together to foster innovation and economic growth in today’s global digital economy. These efforts, including a set of Internet policy principles and statements, culminated in the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance in which open and transparent engagement with all stakeholders is the norm.
Some of this important collaborative and inclusive work continues today. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres . at the United Nations calls for global digital collaboration between nations and the 17th edition of the global Internet Governance Forum, preparations are underway for the UN World Summit on the Information Society and the work of the Development Office of the International Telecommunications Union involves internet users in building connectivity for everyone to the internet of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, for all the successes of the multi-stakeholder model, it continues to be attacked by bureaucracies that want to cling to outdated notions of central government. One need look no further than the recent introduction of sweeping by the European Union digital rules to see this kind of retrograde internet policy. Through an insular and closed process, bureaucrats in Brussels have passed laws designed to impose their values on the entire internet.
Such a brazen attempt by Europe to impose its will on American Internet users should irritate even the most ardent American Europhile. It should give our nation a reason to double down on the transparency, collaboration, and bottom-up policymaking that have marked the Internet’s success.
Instead, the Biden administration eschewed transparency and involvement, using the same closed-loop process used only by governments as the EU. The statement claims to represent a commitment to safeguard democratic principles online, but the lack of transparency and engagement used during development proclaims the opposite. Perhaps more disturbingly, since the United States has deemed it necessary to shut out the public and create policies behind closed doors, authoritarian regimes will feel empowered to follow suit.
Only time will tell if last week’s event was a true turning point in the history of internet governance or just a single erroneous data point. Governing in the open is a difficult, messy process. Making all voices heard and striving for consensus is hard work, work that requires a principled approach.
For the future of the Internet, let’s hope this closed-door chapter of Internet governance is an aberration.
Fiona M. Alexander is a distinguished fellow at the Internet Governance Lab at American University. David J. Redl is a Senior Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.