The early days of the Internet inspired a lofty dream: authoritarian states, faced with the prospect of either connecting to a new system of global communication or being left out of it, would choose to connect. According to this line of utopian thinking, once those countries connected, the flow of new information and ideas from the outside world would inexorably pull them toward economic openness and political liberalization. In reality, something quite different has happened. Instead of spreading democratic values and liberal ideals, the Internet has become the backbone of authoritarian surveillance states all over the world. Regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere have used the Internet’s infrastructure to build their own national networks. At the same time, they have installed technical and legal barriers to prevent their citizens from reaching the wider Internet and to limit Western companies from entering their digital markets.
But despite handwringing in Washington and Brussels about authoritarian schemes to split the Internet, the last thing Beijing and Moscow want is to find themselves relegated to their own networks and cut off from the global Internet. After all, they need access to the Internet to steal intellectual property, spread propaganda, interfere with elections in other countries, and threaten critical infrastructure in rival countries. China and Russia would ideally like to re-create the Internet in their own images and force the world to play by their repressive rules. But they haven’t been able to do that—so instead they have ramped up their efforts to tightly control outside access to their markets, limit their citizens’ ability to reach the wider Internet, and exploit the vulnerability that comes with the digital freedom and openness enjoyed in the West.
The United States and its allies and partners should stop worrying about the risk of authoritarians splitting the Internet. Instead, they should split it themselves, by creating a digital bloc within which data, services, and products can flow freely, excluding countries that do not respect freedom of expression
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