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Two key words were missing from the statements that followed the inaugural in-person summit in September of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, which features Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The first absent word was predictable: “China.” Although the country’s growing strength is the clear geopolitical impetus for this Indo-Pacific grouping, officials are at pains to portray their efforts as positive and not about containing a rival. The other omitted word, however, was both less obvious and more important. The four governments released a set of joint principles on technology, emphasizing shared values, fair competition, and an “open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem.” That rhetoric may sound familiar enough from four countries meeting to champion a “free, open, rules-based order.” But for years, each of these governments, almost reflexively, would also have advocated for an even bigger technological vision: a “global” one.
Almost from its inception, idealists saw in the Internet the radical potential to help bridge divides among people. Digital connectivity spread rapidly during the heady post–Cold War period in which globalization surged and democracy, to many, seemed triumphant. Techno-globalism took root as an ideal among diplomats, scholars, and technologists who believed in free and open exchange both as a virtue in and of itself and as a means to spread political and economic freedoms.
The most utopian techno-globalist visions were never realized. Indeed, one reason political leaders embraced a free and open global Internet was to advocate against efforts to wall off parts of the Web: authoritarian governments, especially in China, worked quickly and effectively to erect digital barriers that prevented their citizens from freely accessing the Internet. Even as U.S. diplomats preached openness, the country’s defense and intelligence sectors perceived new risks and used the Internet to advance more parochial national security interests. Today, far short of the leveled playing field many hoped for, access to the Internet and the benefits that flow from it remains highly unequal around the world.
The recent statements and actions at the Quad and beyond suggest that many long-standing supporters of a global Internet now have moved toward a new vision of technological development: a world fractured between competing national or ideological blocs, each relying on its own trusted hardware and software suppliers to defend against malign interference. To abandon the global ideal in favor of clubs of techno-democracies or techno-autocracies, however, is to abandon a crucial recognition of the Internet age—that despite real divides, humanity and its technologies are stubbornly interconnected.
A permanent technological divide is unlikely, costly, and impractical. Moreover, it is undesirable. Without interdependence, rivals will treat each other with less restraint, increasing the likelihood of serious confrontation. The United States already has a special responsibility to think in global terms about the Internet and digital technology; from Facebook to Google, American titans of industry bestride the world. The Internet’s ability to advance human rights may have been hugely exaggerated, but its capacity to do harm has not, and Washington must think and act globally in keeping its technology giants in check.
Like it or not, the Internet and its associated technologies are global endeavors. Their development—especially in the United States—has depended on human ingenuity, raw materials, and labor sourced from around the world. They have required knowledge sharing, open-source development, and scientific collaboration across borders. Internet technology’s most radical contribution to history—near-instantaneous communications networks that reach a huge portion of humanity—relies upon fiber-optic cables that span borders and traverse the sea floor, a place the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea dubs “the common heritage of mankind.”
For decades, diplomats and intellectuals from the United States and many other countries promoted the ideal of “one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her landmark 2010 Internet freedom speech. The Obama administration’s 2011 International Strategy for Cyberspace warned that “the alternative to global openness and interoperability is a fragmented Internet, where large swaths of the world’s population would be denied access to sophisticated applications and rich content because of a few nations’ political interests.”
A permanent technological divide is unlikely, costly, and impractical.
Until recently, other Quad countries shared the same enthusiasm for this techno-globalist view. Australia’s 2017 international strategy for cyber-engagement is thick with references to a global community, global rule making, and a global online marketplace. Cybersecurity strategies issued by India and Japan in 2013 likewise spoke approvingly of a worldwide Internet community. These governments, in words if not always in deeds, advocated for an open and global technology environment as opposed to the more fenced-off and draconian corners of the Internet in China, Russia, and elsewhere.
A global Internet, however, need not be an ungoverned one. Countries that advanced a techno-globalist vision of the Internet and decried the “cyber-sovereignty” claims of authoritarians still exercised sovereign powers of their own, for instance in restricting child pornography. Some governments in Europe have instituted strong limits on hate speech, such as Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, which requires the swift deletion of illegal speech online. Still, until recently, these countries’ strategies took openness to the world as a starting point and sought to protect against a limited number of specific risks.
The liberal principles of openness, universal human rights, and fair market access still appear in current diplomatic initiatives, such as in the Quad’s statement of principles regarding technology or at the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council launched in September. But this rhetoric does not negate a tilt away from techno-globalism. The United States and its allies are increasingly aware of new vulnerabilities emanating from their connections to the world. The Internet’s dangers—such as the potential for cyberattacks and the dissemination of disinformation on a vast scale—have become clearer, inspiring a nationalist turn in several key democratic countries.
The democratic countries where techno-globalists were once unrestrained in their advocacy of an open Internet now have become preoccupied with technology’s risks. The Internet has allowed hostile state and nonstate actors to traverse borders. Criminal groups have launched ransomware attacks that paralyzed transnational shipping companies and wreaked havoc on global trade. Systemic problems in the digital device market have led to basic security vulnerabilities in everything from connected thermostats to industrial control systems used by power and water utilities. From elections to vaccines, disinformation presents acute domestic and global challenges.
As a result, leaders in India, the United States, and other erstwhile champions of a global Internet have in the last four years sought to impose more control over networks. Mirroring the actions of authoritarian governments, they seek to sever operational and supply chain ties, especially with China and especially in Internet sectors. The perceived threat of infiltration or sabotage is no longer confined to critical infrastructure vendors such as the Chinese firm Huawei but radiates now from other areas, such as social media and the consumer drone industry.
The Internet’s dangers have inspired a nationalist turn in key democratic countries.
Amid this shift, official rhetoric has dropped the “global” in speaking of technology and the Internet. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Cyber Strategy aspired to “promote an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet”—but not necessarily a global one. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Clean Network initiative called for expelling “untrusted” Chinese applications from U.S. app stores and keeping U.S. data away from Chinese-run cloud systems. The government of Narendra Modi, India’s nationalist prime minister, recently upheld its 2020 ban on dozens of Chinese software applications.
Distrust of the global Internet goes beyond nationalist politicians. A wide range of cybersecurity, data governance, and industrial policy experts identify integration between the United States and China in hardware supply chains and online services as a risk to national security. Questions around the integrity of the 2016 U.S. presidential election sparked broad fears that the Internet could undermine democratic institutions. Many thinkers who recoiled at the Trump administration’s caustic style—for instance, the president’s crude insistence on terms such as the “Wuhan virus” for the novel coronavirus—nevertheless believe China represents a model of digital authoritarianism that must be confronted, or at least isolated. In this darkening light, the global Internet can appear like a naive dream of years past.
Today, many democracies are making messy efforts to build consensus around countering China and other countries identified with digital authoritarianism. The British-led D-10, for example, seeks alternatives to China’s telecommunications firm Huawei in the rollout of 5G technology. In December, the White House will hold a “Summit for Democracy,” which advocates hope will advance a multilateral democratic counterweight to authoritarian technological practices. These efforts are not without merit, but they represent a defensive and reactive response to a deeper problem. At best, these initiatives might allow like-minded countries to regroup and find common ground before turning to face global challenges; just as likely, they could prove to be simply diplomatic busywork as stubborn disagreements persist among democratic governments and interest groups.
A better approach would recognize from the outset that the Internet and the development of technology are invariably global and cannot be easily fractured between competing political blocs. Dividing the Internet at the infrastructure level into two or more independent networks would mean duplicating entire highly complex supply chains, which would be extremely costly, carbon-inefficient, and impractical, if even possible in the first place. Such fissures would also not prevent innovations or indeed threats—including malicious attacks and natural disasters—from crossing political divides.
A stark technological divide is not just unrealistic but also undesirable. Embracing a trend toward politically delineated technological ecosystems will undermine the open ethos that fuels and benefits freer societies—and bolster the top-down, controlling ethos favored by repressive regimes. And if rivals are less interdependent, they have less incentive to refrain from crippling attacks on each other’s critical infrastructures.
A stark technological divide is not just unrealistic but also undesirable.
Only a renewed and pragmatic embrace of techno-globalism will offer comprehensive solutions to the real problems of technological governance. Policymakers must adopt a global vision that avoids the folly of believing that technical systems and industrial supply chains can be totally walled off from countries such as China. They should develop solutions that recognize the value and inevitability of international connection. Moreover, as home to many of the companies and individuals that most influence the experience of the Internet around the world, the United States has a special role it cannot ignore. Firms such as Google and Facebook shape how rights to privacy and free expression are protected—or abused—and their motivations cannot be assumed to be virtuous, nor their stewardship of online communities ethical, simply because they reside in the United States. Cyber-utopians once dreamed of liberation spreading from an Ethernet cable; now Washington must ensure that its companies don’t spread exploitation and insecurity instead.
Responsible techno-globalism starts at home. The U.S. Congress must pass a comprehensive federal data privacy law to protect Americans from the overreach of technology companies and to demonstrate a commitment to democratic governance in the Internet age. U.S. thinkers and policymakers should take a global view in analyzing the human rights and security implications of surveillance technology produced in both democratic and authoritarian contexts. Officials must seek ways to enjoy the maximum benefits of open scientific exchange and cooperation while protecting important national security interests, for instance by narrowly targeting security-related areas for special scrutiny but actively reaffirming openness in other fields, including for students and researchers with connections to countries of concern such as China.
This urgent domestic work can form a platform for positive international efforts. With a new State Department bureau dedicated to cybersecurity and digital policy issues, the U.S. government should consult and cooperate with other democracies that are experiencing technology-related challenges and social eruptions. It may not always be easy to find consensus. The United States and the European Union, for instance, have long been at loggerheads over data governance, despite their many shared interests and values. But efforts to piece together an international, democratic, rights-respecting coalition on technology governance will fail before they get off the ground if they do not acknowledge—in assessing the challenges and shaping the solutions—that such a project is inherently a global one.