Representatives of the Biden administration are now saying that its “Alliance for the Future of the Internet” will be launched “in coming weeks.” Despite our earlier article indicating that the initiative might have some promise, the more we’ve heard, the more pessimistic we are about it.
The Alliance has three things working against it. First, it is an intergovernmental, multilateral initiative, not a multi-stakeholder one. Second, it is being driven primarily by U.S. national security concerns regarding China, not so much by liberal values related to the Internet. Third, and most alarming, insofar as this Alliance has any teeth, it really does seem to be an effort to splinter the Internet.
The comments below are based on the leaked document describing the Alliance published by Politico. More recent comments about it were drawn from a speech by the US Government representative at a joint ETNO/USTA webinar held 12 January, 2022. The US spokesperson, Ruth Berry, is Director for Digital Technology Policy, International Economics and Competitiveness on Biden’s National Security Council. Berry has no background in technology or economics, but was trained as a political scientist specializing in Middle East studies and has worked at US AID and the State Department in foreign policy roles her entire career.
The Alliance is being described as a membership-based collection of governments “that ensures reciprocity among members and adherence by governments to a set of minimum standards.” A weak and vague commitment to multistakeholder participation is thrown in as an afterthought: some of the government-defined and enforced commitments “could be directly subscribed to by companies, NGOs, and experts as well as governments.”
National security focus
The Alliance calls for a “Commitment to develop and implement high standards for data privacy, data security, and cyber security.” The only actionable element of this, however, is “a commitment to use only trustworthy providers for core information and communications technologies network infrastructure.” This is clearly picking up the Trump administration’s “Clean Networks” idea and attempting to multilateralize it. Clean Networks was designed to exclude a major Chinese equipment vendor, Huawei, and Berry’s talk specifically called out the company as “untrustworthy.” Would the U.S. exclude from the Alliance countries who use Huawei? Would the concept of “untrustworthy” extend to any and all Chinese producers? The Alliance also contained a commitment to cooperation on tech platform regulation, which was nicely tied to “nondiscrimination among Alliance members in domestic regulation in the internet sector.” Another Commitment to “ensuring open and interoperable access for software and apps among members” and “non-discrimination in domestic regulations and shared commitments regarding data localization” also sounds good, but as always, it allows for “exceptions such as blocking illegal content and/or specified national security exemptions.” So on what basis would China be excluded since all the content they block is illegal or against national security, by Communist Party standards, and the U.S. under Trump and India’s BJP also declared specific apps national security threats?
Mandate for a split?
The most concerning aspect of the Alliance, as presently described, is its statement that it will “advance democratic values and the rule of law by offering the benefits of an open Internet for those who adhere to basic principles and protections, while declining those benefits to non-adherent nations.” Whoa. How, exactly, will other nations be excluded? Disconnection? Exclusion from the DNS? The Alliance non-paper repeatedly uses the term “defection” to describe the actions of the nations it is allying against; e.g., it refers to “the defection of some nations from the original values of the Internet” and claims that defectors have “taken unilateral advantage of the Internet’s original vision, and now regard the network primarily as a tool of state power.” If one thinks of the Internet as a cooperative game, then the term “defection” has strong implications. It really does seem to imply that the bad guys have formed a separate internet and we need to shield ourselves from it by forming a club and excluding them.
We hope this is just poorly thought out wording, but one can only wonder what is going through the heads of our national security/tech “experts” in the Biden administration.