The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has issued a report “The Open Internet on the Brink: Recommendations for a Future Model.” The report claims to attempt to advance liberal values. And its diagnosis of Internet problems is in line with those values. “Restrictions on internet freedoms are increasing globally, governments are competing to assert their authority and a decades-long governance system of voluntary, technical bodies is now creaking.” (So now we know why we hear that odd “creaking” sound emanating from Marina del Rey. They must be referring to the Operational Design Phase of the EPDP.) The report recognizes that geopolitical competition “may lock in fragmentation,” and asserts that restrictive governance models are gaining ground. All quite accurate.
The report’s recommendations, however, will not save the day. They are more a sign of what is wrong with Internet governance than a useful set of proposed solutions. The Institute repeats the routine fallacy of “high-level” global leaders: it proposes a top-down redesign that betrays a lack of knowledge of how the internet works, and how institutional change on such a vast scale actually happens. It also exhibits misguided ideas about what kind of institutions can preserve the liberalism of the internet.
The report proposes to further embed IG in nation-state politics by creating a “Digital Infrastructure and Defense Alliance,” which it openly describes as a “NATO for the Internet.” Cue the eyeroll. So they would have us leap completely out of the civil society/business-led internet into a geopolitical, state-led one, and model IG after the institutional arrangements of the Cold War. The idea looks even worse when one looks at the countries charged with saving the internet. There is Australia, Canada, and the UK, all of which have proposed “online safety” bills [Australia, UK] or outright censorship bills [Canada] that pioneer new restrictions on the internet. It includes France and Germany, leaders of a “digital sovereignty” agenda that, if carried out, constitutes exactly the kind of geopolitical competition the report claims leads to fragmentation. It includes India, home of the Modi government’s efforts to modify the Information Technology Act to give the state more control over social media content. Italy and South Korea? Well, Italy is ok, if pretty much a nonfactor, and South Korea is about as regulative and nationalistic as China, when you come down to it. Overall, this is a military alliance regime aimed at China, not an Internet governance freedom coalition.
It gets worse. They want the UN to designate “a new class of firms with ‘strategic geopolitical status,’ and these firms would be required to establish and join “a geo-technology board,” which the report describes as an “independent, industry-wide, self-regulatory body for global technology companies.” This board would then “set out a new international policy.” So we are talking about freezing into place a global cartel consisting of the incumbent platforms (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) and turning global policies over to them. Not that this will ever happen, but it doesn’t even seem like an appealing dream. (And hey, what about Ten Cent, Alibaba, and JD? China not being part of the DIDA after all? The report is silent on this). This proposal for global corporate statism is original, we will grant it that. Maybe Blair’s friends in the World Economic Forum and other advocates of stakeholder capitalism will be interested in fleshing out the details. We are not.
The report also calls for “Oversight from a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Internet Policy (MPIP).” The MPIP, modelled on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, seems to be an attempt to reinvent the IGF, but this IGF, it claims will be “newly authoritative” – although there is nothing in the report to tell us where or how it gets any oversight authority, or over what or whom.
The Blair Institute effort is well-motivated, but this report signals the exhaustion and intellectual emptiness of 1990s-style internationalism when it comes to the challenges of today’s Internet governance. Without direct recognition of the inherent conflict between the digital world and state sovereignty and the need for transformative global governance arrangements developed from the bottom up with civil society, technical community and business, the Internet will continue to be drawn into geopolitical competition and jurisdictional alignments that limit its potential and stunt the growth of a self-governing global community.