With the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties concluded, the sprint towards the general election is underway. Even modified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the conventions fulfilled their traditional roles of setting political agendas, highlighting policy differences, and launching themes the campaigns will pursue until November 3. The conventions also provided the broadest perspectives of the parties on the issues they believe will define the future of the United States before electioneering tweets things down to a snatch of soundbites.
The internet’s future will not be among those soundbites, but this issue will confront the next administration. For the United States, the internet ain’t what it used to be. Changes across multiple policy fronts over the past decade or more have converged to undermine U.S. power, interests, and ideas in cyberspace. How do the policy documents released during the Democratic and Republic conventions respond to this challenge?
The Democrats issued a ninety-one-page platform [PDF], while the Republicans distributed brief bullet-points containing President Trump’s second-term agenda. This difference cautions against reading too much or too little into the documents in comparing them. In addition, priorities not explicitly about the internet might involve assumptions about, or implications for, internet policy that are not fleshed out.
Both documents emphasize expanding access to high-speed internet and strengthening cybersecurity in the United States. The Republican agenda does not provide details or identify other priorities. The Democratic platform includes some specifics, such as subsidizing access for low-income individuals to make high-speed internet more accessible. It flags cyber espionage against American companies, cybersecurity threats to U.S. critical infrastructure and election systems, and U.S. cyber deterrence capabilities for attention. The platform supports improved protection of privacy online and better “rules of the road” for cyberspace governance.
These issue areas are chronic problems for U.S. policy that have elicited promises to fix from candidates and presidential administrations from both parties for years. The Republican platform in 2016 asserted, for example, that “cyber attacks against our businesses, institutions, and the government have become almost routine,” an indictment of the Obama administration’s handling of cybersecurity. President Trump’s pledge to “Build a Great Cybersecurity Defense System” during his second term raises the question why the United States does not already have such a system.
Similarly, in 2016, the Republican platform claimed that “the internet as we know it” was threatened and committed the party to protecting internet freedom. In 2020, the Democratic platform would have President Biden “recommit the United States to the principles of an open internet.” While Democrats and Republicans have been committing and recommitting to this objective, “global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019,” according to Freedom House, and is “imperiled by . . . digital authoritarianism.”
In particular, Freedom House warns that social media—once in the vanguard of internet freedom—now tilt “dangerously toward illiberalism” because of “American neglect” and that the future of internet freedom depends on “our ability to fix social media.” The Democratic platform acknowledges the problem, promising that a Biden administration will expect “social media platforms to take responsibility and do more to preserve the openness of democratic societies and identify foreign disinformation.” However, social media self-regulation as a way to bolster internet freedom has not proved effective because private-sector content moderation has become deeply politicized in democracies.
The warmed-over rhetoric in Trump’s agenda and the Democratic platform is disconcerting because geopolitical, technological, commercial, and ideological changes over the past decade or so have transformed the context in which the United States formulates and implements internet policy. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they should not stay the same. For example, the sense that U.S. cybersecurity urgently needed a strategic overhaul informed the Cyberspace Solarium Commission and the ongoing efforts to turn its recommendations into policy and law.
Like the convention documents, the Trump and Biden campaign websites provide little indication that Republicans or Democrats are spending time pondering whether U.S. internet policy requires a root-and-branch re-think. Searching for “internet freedom” on the Trump website produces no results. The Biden website does not have a “Build Back Better” agenda for the internet as it does for other issues. Biden does propose a “Summit for Democracy,” at which the world’s democracies would address, among other things, internet issues, such as election interference, and call for tech companies to make “concrete pledges” to ensure that their services better support internet freedom.
However, the need for a summit of democracies and transformative private-sector commitments underscores how precarious domestic and international politics have become for U.S. internet policy. Once upon a time in cyberspace, the United States needed no “coalition of the willing” to counter authoritarianism, and the business models of tech companies were not manna from heaven to anti-democratic forces at home and abroad. Beyond the general election awaits the challenge of figuring out what makes freedom great on an internet forever changed.