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We Need to Change the Direction of US Tech Diplomacy to Preserve the Internet’s Future

Global Internet freedoms are at risk, governments compete to assert their authority, and a decades-old governance system based on voluntary bodies is at stake.

To maintain open, liberal values online, the United States proposed that "like-minded democracies" form an "Alliance for the Future of the Internet" following the recent Democracy Summit. Continuing a long line of cooperative efforts is a promising prospect for achieving goals. Unfortunately, as it stands, it risks failing. Having delayed the launch due to disagreements between officials, the U.S. must take this opportunity for a rethink.

Several factors explain why an alliance is necessary: Global Internet freedoms are at risk, governments compete to assert their authority, and a decades-old governance system based on voluntary bodies is at stake. According to Tim Wu, a new initiative to promote and defend open, liberal values in the internet era is sorely needed, adviser to the Biden administration on technology policy.

As a result, the United States' emphasis on "like-minded democracies" working together may undermine its own goals. Neither a small club of democracies talking among themselves nor coercion alone will secure the future of the open internet. As a result, any Alliance must focus on economic and security incentives from the start to build a broad and sustainable coalition for the long term.

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Internet policy that is more internationalist would be better suited to the U.S. than in the past. Innovative, interoperable networks and dumb pipes - infrastructure without a vision of the content it transports - lead to economic and social value creation. America's disproportionate jurisdictional power has supported the open internet model since the 1960s: Even though it hosts only 7.1% of global core infrastructure services, it hosts 61% of the world's internet users. Only China, which has 19% of the worldwide internet users, possesses a comparable level of geopolitical influence.

Despite American hegemony, free internet access is no longer guaranteed. A growing number of countries are at a tipping point regarding their internet governance as authoritarian internet models, such as censorship and surveillance, gain traction rapidly. Currently, 3.7 billion people are without internet access.

Developing countries that comprise the bulk of this group will determine the future of the internet as connectivity improves - and at present, they are more likely to receive financing from China than anywhere else. A multipolar internet is inevitable, but its direction - open or closed, liberal or authoritarian - is not.

For any alliance to succeed, it must go beyond the cliché of "like-minded partners" and document a twin strategy, combining economic and security incentives as well as open internet commitments such as banning internet shutdowns, to encourage a broader range of countries to join. Focusing only on the cooperation between today's democracies is over-indexing a narrower and narrower internet section. There are still areas where traditional allies are at odds, like the European Union and the United States in multiple areas of Internet regulation.

It will be essential to use this strategy to persuade countries to consider more restrictive internet policies. Access to social media has been restricted in 31 of 54 African countries since 2015. In some cases, these shutdowns result from overt repression and should be met with a robust international response. In other cases, however, chaotic policy, a low capacity state, and a lack of investment in content moderation from social media firms have led to regrettable actions that might have been avoided.

In Africa, the West too often treats states as nothing more than "proxy battles" in a larger U.S.-China "cold war." Neither of these perspectives is helpful.

China is not a monolith: It is the West's partner, competitor, and an adversary at the same time. China cannot be forced out of the global internet infrastructure market by the U.S., EU, or others, nor should they. Africa, the U.S., and China would all be better served by a globally competitive market for internet infrastructure, with no one state either monopolizing provision or footing the entire bill.

Furthermore, African countries have their political priorities and challenges, but it is also in the West's economic interest to offer support. For example, connecting all 3.7 billion people without internet access would cost just 0.02% of the gross national incomes of OECD states, including countries such as the U.S., U.K., Korea, and Japan, while also generating a 25x return.

This year while the G7 launched its "Build Back Better World" initiative, intended to compete with China's infrastructure offer, it did not come with any additional funds. Few efforts have been made to reform IMF and World Bank development programs, which the United States can influence despite being uncompetitively bureaucratic, risk-averse, and expensive for many African leaders who face fragile development pathways and urgent development job-creation demands.

This program has failed because of years of political inertia and lack of ambition. However, a reset could be provided by the Alliance for the Future of the Internet. To succeed, it must demonstrate that there is no path to prosperity that compromises internet freedoms while also providing the guidance and incentives to enable a different approach. To truly protect the open, global internet in the long run, we need to build broad, international coalitions in everyone's economic and security interests. There will always be some countries that will never sign up, but such strong incentives could convince many "swing states" - such as Indonesia, Kenya, or Brazil - to join.