The United States is attempting to assert moral leadership again in the field of internet governance. I refer here to the “new covenant” or “new alliance for the future of the internet” that Biden administration advisor Tim Wu is developing.

Wu addressed the UN Internet Governance Forum Thursday in a smallish session that nevertheless attracted intense interest among hard core Internet governance mavens. His session was moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon of the Wikimedia Foundation, which shows that Wu is liaising with human rights and civil society advocates. Whether he has any support from Internet businesses, American or elsewhere, is another matter. As is explained below, that will prove to a major limitation, if not the undoing, of his initiative. An announcement of the new alliance was expected at the Democracy Summit. but it was deemed not ready and postponed.

People like to say that you can’t be half pregnant, but Wu’s new alliance seems to be poking its head out of the womb and then sliding back in at irregular intervals. Worse, no one is clear about whether it’s a newborn baby or a Lazarus-like revival.

Let’s first discuss what this initiative could be, its most promising aspect. Then we will explain, based on what we heard, how it disappoints. Of course, the thing is not born yet so it’s possible the critique will help to give it a proper bone structure.

What we need

At its best, the Wu initiative could be an attempt to challenge the accelerating trend toward authoritarianism, barriers and state regulation in the online world. It would try to throw the weight of liberal democratic values against the shift from a dynamic and innovating internet to a more static, concentrated and controlled one. Such a values-based push could acknowledge the need for new laws and reforms without falling prey to the moral panic about platforms, data, AI and social media. It could support vigorous responses to problems in data governance, privacy and trade policy, but responses that support rather than undermine a liberal market economy. It would need a clear articulation of liberal values related to communication and information, and push against the co-optation of public internet infrastructure by states for cyber-attacks, propaganda and censorship. Even if half the world didn’t like its vision, those who did would be rallied and their confidence raised in domestic policy debates. At the very least, it would clarify the options and erect some direct resistance to the slide toward authoritarian control.

If it were forthright and honest enough (so far it is not), the initiative would explicitly contrast its values and its governance model with China’s. Instead of panicking and asking the world to shun Chinese firms economically, it could point out how China’s increasingly walled off information environment will fail in the long term, just as the Soviet Union’s economy did. To do that, however, the US would have to walk a very fine line: it would have to avoid linking the clash of values and governance models to its own narrow geopolitical interests. Liberal democratic values should not be weaponized, or serve as a disguise for US efforts to confront and contain its military rivals. In other words, the world should be presented not with a power struggle between states, but with a clear choice between values and civilian policies.

To walk that line, the USG would have to win open and enthusiastic support from multiple social sectors – not just the human rights-oriented Internet governance crowd, but also the software and internet businesses from around the world. And while recognizing the need for reforms, it would have to view its own platform firms as success stories in innovation and development, not as demonized threats to democracy and humanity. It would need to be able to articulate how users and the broad masses of people benefit from a competitive, market-driven, open and free digital economy.

What we got

At the IGF, Wu gave us some faint echoes of this vision, but it was a muted and sometimes muddled picture. He told us that the dream of the 1990s Internet is still alive, “if somewhat battered,” and seemed to indicate that some of the key values underlying it, such as anti-censorship and multistakeholder governance, are still vital and should be promoted. He also recognized that “it can’t just be the USA,” there needs to be a broad effort that builds on pre-existing entities such as the IGF, the Freedom Online Coalition, the OECD, and the G7. He also indicated that the initiative would include “new ideas about what constitutes responsible state behavior” in cyberspace. He presented some “obvious principles” as a set of “Do’s” and “Do nots”. The “Do’s” were to respect human rights, promote affordable, inclusive and reliable net access, and combat abuse; the “Do nots include blocking or shutting down “lawful” content, services and applications; undermining electoral infrastructure; or undermining the multistakeholder system of IG.

The Questions

Wu attracted lots of skeptical questions. A big problem is that the Biden administration itself – and its Republican opposition – both seem to be as much in the “crack down on tech” mindset as the Chinese state. Further, its understanding of the political coalition needed to stand up for the internet does not seem to include internet businesses, which are (often unfairly) seen as tainted. The (Bill) Clinton Administration’s political coalition succeeded in setting the stage for the Internet’s growth and success because it included business, developers and entrepreneurs as well as civil society. Today the political class in the US seems to see the private sector and market forces as part of the problem. Platforms are blamed for every political and social ill. Section 230 is under attack by Democrats and Republicans alike. Both Democrats and Republicans are opposing new or revised free trade agreements in IT equipment and information services. Their cybersecurity czars sound indistinguishable from their Chinese counterparts.

In this domestic climate, how does this alliance offer a different and distinctive vision of internet governance from that pursued by Europe or China?

The worst mistake, and the greatest cause of pessimism, came when Wu was asked by Yik-chan Chin, a Professor in Beijing, whether he was excluding or challenging China. Wu denied it, uttering some vague words about how China would be welcome to join the initiative. While this was intended to be diplomatic and to avoid friction, it was like refusing to acknowledge an elephant in the room. If a “new alliance for the future of the internet” means anything, it has to be starkly differentiated from China’s model. Otherwise it’s meaningless. Of course this must be a contrast of policy ideas and values, not a call for cyber-military confrontation or a Hilary Clinton-style call for external subversion of China’s system. China will, of course, complain that calls for a free and open internet constitute interference in its internal affairs but that can be safely ignored; indeed, putting the CCP on the ideological defensive is a feature not a bug.

There were also major concerns expressed about the vagueness of the proposal. Attendee Rasha Abdulla wrote in the chat: “I’m not sure it’s clear what exactly is the “something” that the US wants to do? What exactly is the action plan?” Daniel Perez Fernandez asked: “You say that you are not aiming for the creation of new norms, and that you are not aiming, either, at the creation of new [organizational] bodies. So what’s the US govt planning to do to make sure these principles are followed? Or is this just some sort of empty declaration of principles?”

It would be damaging for the US to declare a major new initiative that led to nothing. If the Biden administration wants to fight for the future of the internet it needs to have a clearer vision of what it is fighting for.