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A Liberal Coalition for Internet Governance

Author: Annegret Bendiek, Deputy Head of Research Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Apr 18, 2014

African Union Expert Brief A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw, in February 2013 (Kacper Pempel/ Courtesy Reuters).


The revelations by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA is conducting broad surveillance in both the United States and abroad, as well as spying on foreign leaders' communication, proved to be an important turning point for the future of Internet governance. Currently, the private sector Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in Los Angeles, coordinates much of the Internet's governance. However, Western dominance, and particularly U.S. influence, in the current governance structure is highly contested, and the NSA revelations only intensified these tensions.

To protect the openness of the Internet while assuaging these tensions, three major reforms should be undertaken:

1. Network Diplomacy

Network diplomacy in Internet governance between established and emerging powers needs to be built on liberalism, a regulatory principle with both procedural and substantial components. Procedurally, it centers on the idea that those who are affected by a rule must also have a say in the making of that rule. This basic theme of congruence between the authors and the addressees of rules can be found in all established theories of democracy and lays at the heart of a political interpretation of freedom. The condition of congruence rejects any authoritarian and hegemonic order, and demands an opening of the rule-setting process to all states and other important stakeholders who can legitimately claim to have an interest in its regulation.

In substantial terms, liberalism fosters freedom of expression, global communications, and citizen participation in global exchanges. In the context of the Internet, it insists on as few governmental regulations as necessary and as much private freedom as possible on global standards for the hardware and software of the Internet, and on an unlimited access of all citizens of the world to its communicative infrastructure.

2. Inclusive and Accountable Governance ("Multistakeholderism")

A future liberal order of the Internet should distinguish between the core functions of the Internet: the content, code, and physical layer. The latter two areas of regulation are by and large technical in nature and should be built on the model of inclusive and accountable multistakeholder governance. The content question, however, is more political.

The recent political debate about the future order of the Internet centers on the notion of multistakeholder governance. In theory, this model acknowledges the fact that the Internet arose as a product of the interaction of all participating and affected stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society actors, and the technical community. Contributing expertise to solve practical Internet problems—and not sovereignty—would be the most important currency of influence. A "rough consensus and running code" is considered to have been achieved when the major groups involved have no more fundamental objections.

In practice, though, the current multistakeholder model is technocracy in disguise and has little sensibility for legitimate restrictions of content (such as child pornography or hate speech). It is based on a rather arbitrary representation of interests and thus struggles to find good reasons for why it should have the right to decree binding orientations in democratic states. Still, sound Internet governance should not prevent public authorities—deriving their powers and legitimacy from democratic processes—to fulfill their public policy responsibilities where those are compatible with universal human rights. It is based on standard-setting processes that comply with both fundamental rights and the requirements of transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability.

Inclusive Internet governance could make it easier for stakeholders with limited resources in emerging democracies to engage in agenda setting and policy formulation, and secure the integration of a broad set of interests. Therefore, the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions is unavoidable in the long term. A liberal Internet order always commits to the idea of one single unfragmented space. This might also include the introduction of points and transmission capacity, which can strengthen the resilience and robustness of the Internet, as well as measures to protect fundamental rights and to address concerns raised by revelations of large-scale surveillance and intelligence activities by the U.S. government and some European governments.

3. A Coalition for a Liberal Internet Order

The regulation of content should follow a more political, and thus multilateral, model that embodies the idea of a coalition of the liberals, consistent with fundamental rights and democratic values. Thus, a future liberal order of the Internet needs to be built on a new "coalition of liberal countries" to adopt a political leadership role in Internet governance. It would center on an alliance between the United States and the EU, but also encompass Australia, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and other liberal states. It would commit to the Internet as one single, unfragmented, and open space, and strengthen the multistakeholder model, standard-setting processes (which must comply with fundamental rights and the requirements of transparency), inclusiveness, and accountability.

The aim of the "coalition of liberal countries" would be first to structure the political discourse among liberal states more effectively. A successful liberal order depends on the United States and Europe (especially Germany) recognizing that on both sides; domestic politics limit the range of feasible compromise. Second, a no-spy agreement with a legally binding commitment that no intelligence will be gathered among allies will be an important political and human resource cost-saving step.

Finally, a liberal coalition for Internet governance must reconsider the problematic practice by many liberal states of allowing the export of dual-use software to authoritarian states. Companies that put insecure software on the market likewise facilitate the surveillance activities of authoritarian states. If the coalition of liberals is to become, and remain, a credible voice for the values of freedom, human rights, and democracy, it must take a critical look at its own export controls and prevent any suggestions that it might apply double standards. Hypocrisy is not a convincing position from which a global regulatory approach can be mounted. It is directly opposite to the need of establishing political leadership on legitimate rule-setting.


The Internet has become vital for the continuing health and growth of more than one area of social intercourse and will certainly play a positive role in maintaining a sustainable public order in the future. This means that the coalition for a liberal Internet order must also be anchored transnationally if it is to be stable in the long term. Citizens in the wider Atlantic have become more acutely aware than ever before of the drawbacks to digitization, and calls for a renationalization of communication structures are more noticeable. A major transparency initiative is now necessary to stave off this threatening development. It is essential to comprehensively inform the public about U.S. and European industrial and security data usage practices and to make clear why this public disclosure is necessary. Anything less would leave unchecked the current erosion of trust between governments and citizens, and losing this trust would mean losing a most precious asset for the maintenance of liberal democracy.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.