We're Living Our Lives On The Internet, And We Can't Be Free If It Isn't.

from the the-open-internet-is-more-important-than-ever dept

Last year, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “offline” world suddenly became a lot more online. All around the world, people have struggled to adapt. Worst off are those who can’t take internet access for granted. The Federal Communications Commission will spend many resources on the domestic side of this challenge, further investing in internet connectivity reach, quality, and affordability. But the international side, known as “internet freedom,” is a harder question.

Internet freedom may generate fewer headlines than a decade ago, when it was a signature issue of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But internet freedom is just as necessary now as it was then. For example, in China, crucial information about the spread of COVID-19 was often unavailable, and citizens resorted to using technical workarounds to upload and view videos about the pandemic on government-blocked YouTube. And in Iran, those who follow the Baháʼí faith are denied access to education, and depend on internet freedom technologies to give themselves the most basic opportunities. There are many more such examples in internet repressive countries around the world.

Fortunately, bipartisan support for internet freedom in Congress has kept funding levels robust over the past four years, and consistent leadership from within the Department of State and other funders has kept this work strong. But as with so many other areas of policy, the Trump administration not only did not add value, but actively made things worse by engaging in a harmful turf war. Partisan leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) disrupted the funding and operations of its independent grantee Open Technology Fund (OTF) when OTF chose to pursue good policy over bad politics, an approach that - to give one example - led the organization to support early development of the now-popular Signal secure messaging service.

The first internet freedom action by the Biden administration should be to reverse course and install leadership at USAGM that can work constructively with OTF, the State Department, and other funders to support scalable open source technology and community internet freedom solutions. Congress did its part through the defense funding bill passed on New Year’s Day (in the first-ever override of a veto by Trump), allocating substantial resources and setting the tone for open source to be at the heart of internet freedom efforts. And President Biden has cleared the way by firing Michael Pack, head of USAGM, on inauguration day. Now it’s President Biden’s move again, to make a better appointment at USAGM than his predecessor did.

Internet freedom is a human rights issue, but it isn’t just a human rights issue. As 2020 demonstrated so clearly, the internet is connective tissue for massive parts of our economy and our society. Thus, China’s Great Firewall does far more than just repress free expression: it also implements an economic protectionist agenda, and is a powerful tool for fostering nationalist support at home. To counter these challenges, the Biden administration should adopt a positive agenda of supporting the global free flow of data and information, to prove in practice the superiority of digital globalization over repression and protectionism. That means growing the internet freedom agenda further, well above and beyond the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor where it was incubated, to embrace the economic and political divisions at State as well as the Department of Commerce.

Perhaps more than any other federal agency, the State Department is in need of a hard reboot. Under Trump, the United States reverted to being a unilateral bully, bringing back the “Team America: World Police” spirit of the George W. Bush administration, forcing out centuries of institutional knowledge and expertise. Unsurprisingly, that strategy has failed. China in particular possesses many advantages on the global stage, and will be in an even better position in many respects after 2020. The United States faces a drastically weakened foreign policy position, and cannot turn any tides alone. In the context of internet freedom, the American agenda should include expanding efforts with the Freedom Online Coalition and other diplomatic avenues where we can work arm-in-arm with other countries who, frankly, possess more goodwill on the global stage than the U.S. does right now.

Finally, leadership starts at home. For at least the past decade, the U.S. approach to digital government surveillance has been outright hostile, highlighted by frequent battles in an ill-conceived war on encryption. President Biden has an opportunity to show strong support for privacy and security by shaping the interagency and National Security Council to better balance law enforcement with civil rights and internet freedom champions. The newly created role of a White House coordinator for democracy and human rights is a good start. It’s past time the U.S. stops pursuing backdoors that would put everyday internet users at great risk.

Where the internet isn’t open, the people aren’t free. Although the challenges facing the Biden administration in putting the United States back together will be many and broad-ranging, restoring American leadership on internet freedom should be a top priority.

Adam Fisk is the founder and president of Brave New Software, a leading 501(c)(3) developer of internet freedom technologies including Lantern and a recipient of U.S. government internet freedom support. Chris Riley is a strategic advisor to Brave New Software and a former member of the internet freedom program team at the State Department.

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Filed Under: internet freedom, open internet, otf


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  1. icon
    Koby (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 6:21pm

    Incentives?

    To counter these challenges, the Biden administration should adopt a positive agenda of supporting the global free flow of data and information, to prove in practice the superiority of digital globalization over repression and protectionism.

    What incentives are in it for them? Why would countries that are attempting to firewall or splinter off the internet decide to go in the other direction? For example, if another country believes that a U.S. tech company could censor their head of state, yet they have free trade and can continue to sell goods and conduct business, why wouldn't they seek to continue the splinter?


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