from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Requiem for the Internet Freedom Strategy

The internet was supposed to foster freedom and democracy. It has not panned out as much as some had hoped.

October 18, 2017

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask attends a demonstration against presidential candidates Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq at Tahrir Square in Cairo May 29, 2012. Mohammed Salem/Reuters
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United States

For the United States, bad news concerning the internet and cyberspace has become an unrelenting avalanche. Massive data breaches, such as the Equifax incident, threaten individual privacy and financial well-being. The U.S. government cannot protect sensitive information; even the National Security Agency got hacked. Silicon Valley companies fight one rear-guard action after another. Russian cyber operations threaten U.S. elections and self-government. Domestic politicians and interest groups compete to spread misinformation and sow division in American society through social media.

Stepping back from the headlines, the internet appears to be an endless source of vulnerabilities criminals, extremists of all stripes, corporations, and governments exploit with impunity. Cyberspace seems drained of the democratic ideals once associated with its emergence and is, instead, swamped with anger, hatred, fear, manipulation, falsehoods, discontent, coercion, and conflict. What has happened challenges the leading strategic concept of the digital age embraced by the United States—internet freedom.

In brief, internet freedom has guided U.S. policy to support individual rights in online activities, achieve internet-based economic innovation and prosperity, facilitate the cyber-enabled spread of democratic politics, and defend this agenda against authoritarian resistance. The strategy projected what U.S. leaders believed the United States enjoyed in terms of the internet and cyberspace. As other U.S. foreign policy doctrines have done, internet freedom wove together American principles and power in ways presidents, Congress, commercial enterprises, and civil society found compelling.

However, as a strategic concept, internet freedom now confronts two existential threats. First, the strategy has lost momentum in international affairs. Indicators that internet freedom is in trouble are legion, including analysis of the global decline of internet freedom, the limited achievements of U.S. cyber diplomacy, and the Trump administration's lack of interest in internet freedom and cyber diplomacy. Authoritarian governments, especially in China and Russia, have advanced the rival concept of internet sovereignty and are taking advantage of President Donald J. Trump's abdication of leadership in this area.

Second, the strategy of internet freedom was not designed to address the cyber-related problems within the United States. Promotion of internet freedom has caused no discernible improvements in corporate or government cybersecurity in the United States. Russian cyber operations against U.S. election systems and participants and through social media during the election campaign demonstrate internet freedom created no deterrent to, or adverse consequences for, authoritarian meddling in the world's oldest democracy. Nor has the internet freedom agenda mitigated the economic dislocations digital technologies cause across the United States or social media's contributions to the nasty and brutish turn in American political discourse. 

These foreign and domestic threats suggest that internet freedom is failing badly as a doctrine, which raises the question whether it should continue to guide U.S. policy. This question is a difficult one because internet freedom has been the unchallenged strategy for so many years. For much of this time, there were few reasons to interrogate it. It was the predominant concept, largely because of the political, economic, and technological power of the United States. But, today, internet freedom might represent nostalgia more than strategic thinking for the challenges the United States now confronts at home and abroad.

Looking ahead, two changes in thinking seem necessary. First, the strategic approach to the internet and cyberspace in foreign policy cannot ignore the problems the United States faces domestically. We know from past experience that when rival framings of fundamental political and economic problems compete geopolitically, what happens domestically in the antagonists matters internationally.  The importance of this domestic-international dynamic was not a feature of past policy thinking on the internet and cyberspace because of assumptions, or complacency, about internet freedom in the United States.

Second, a new approach should transition policy away from treating the internet and cyberspace as exceptional and separate in policy terms, which is a vestige of an earlier enthusiasm for the possibilities created by technological innovation. The scale of the dependence on the internet that societies and governments have developed means that the internet is no longer exceptional or separate in political terms. The decline of cyber exceptionalism has been gradual, during which the differences between the internet and previous modes of communication were apparent. But, now, the transformation is complete.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is unlikely to engage in strategic reorientation concerning the internet and cyberspace. The president thrives on the worst features of social media in U.S. politics and has no intention of confronting Russian interference in the U.S. elections and politics. He has shown no interest in applying his grand framework—Make America Great Again—to the domestic and international consequences of the failure of the internet freedom strategy. So, for the foreseeable future, the United States will remain rudderless at home and abroad in how to align our principles with the instruments of power at our disposal.  

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