The US Retreat from Internet Openness: Implications and Outcomes

In a significant policy shift last October, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) signaled a departure from the nation’s previous commitment to maintaining an open internet. This decision, marking a dramatic shift away from advocating World Trade Organisation measures designed to ensure the free flow of digital information across borders, has raised concerns about the future of internet openness. Such measures include protecting cross-border data flows, opposing forced data localisation, safeguarding source codes, and banning digital product discrimination based on nationality.

The USTR justified its stance by suggesting that prior trade provisions might limit the US Congress’s ability to regulate Big Tech firms and artificial intelligence effectively. This rationale overlooks the fact that trade agreements commonly include exceptions for legitimate public policy objectives. Moreover, Congress itself has evidenced through its research that trade deals do not hinder its regulatory aims. This indicates that it’s possible to engage in international digital economy regulation without compromising the integrity of the open internet.

The consequences of the US’s policy reversal are manifold and pose a risk to the very fabric of the internet. The concept of “digital sovereignty,” increasingly viewed as a panacea by some nations for enforcing local laws on the internet, gains traction as the US’s commitment wanes. The retreat of the US from its role as an internet freedom advocate could embolden countries to institute digital borders, significantly altering the nature of the internet.

Countries like Rwanda have already begun to adopt stringent data governance models akin to China’s, mandating that companies store data within national borders unless explicitly allowed otherwise. This move not only makes personal data more susceptible to governmental overreach but also threatens the pillars of privacy and dissent. Simultaneously, several democracies are contemplating data regulation measures that could disrupt the open internet in the absence of robust cross-border data flow safeguards.

This shift by the US poses a critical risk, especially in the absence of a strong commitment from the 90 WTO members part of the joint e-commerce initiative, to support crucial internet protections. The lack of a unified front could sway numerous countries, especially from the developing world with nascent data governance frameworks, towards a more closed and regulated internet model.

The imposition of data localisation mandates showcases the potential for such regulations to compromise rather than enhance privacy and security. For instance, the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, has faced numerous unjustified requests for user data from governments. Data localisation could exacerbate this issue by forcing data to remain within countries where rights and freedoms might not be robustly protected.

Economically, the requirement to establish localized data storage solutions could render many non-profit and commercial ventures financially untenable, not to mention increase security vulnerabilities and reduce access to information.

In response to the US’s policy shift, G-7 ministers reaffirmed their commitment to open digital trade and markets. However, their declaration may fall short unless there is a concerted global effort involving all stakeholders to commit to the open internet’s principles. Beyond trade negotiations, a global movement is required to protect the internet from becoming fragmented by digital sovereignty ambitions. This includes reasserting support for free data flow in international forums and domestic policy-making.

As the internet faces threats from its own success, becoming increasingly indispensable yet vulnerable to fragmentation, it’s crucial that concerted efforts are made to maintain its openness. The future of the internet as a global, secure, and open resource hinges on collaborative, international commitment to its foundational principles.

Contributors to the discussion, Natalie Dunleavy Campbell and Stan Adams, offer a bleak reminder: the undivided, free internet we’ve come to depend on is at risk. Only through a widespread commitment to protecting its openness can we hope to preserve the internet as a space for free expression, innovation, and global collaboration.

Copyright: Project Syndicate,

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