Competing for the Middle Ground in Internet Governance

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A ‘moment of reckoning’ is coming for liberal democracies trying to preserve a free, open and multistakeholder internet, according to a senior GCHQ official. Authoritarian states such as China are leading the way in creating a censored and largely state-controlled internet.

Internet governance is a technocratic and often ignored policy area that fundamentally determines whether technology is used or abused. Liberal democratic governments are waking up to the power struggle currently playing out in internet governance decision-making forums that determine the safe and secure development and use of technologies.

Shaping cyberspace is a powerful and influential area of long-term policymaking that will impact the future of society and national security. Experts and policymakers often frame the landscape as an East-versus-West dichotomy, therefore erasing the agency of countries that do not fit neatly into pre-determined boxes. What these countries want and are motivated by is crucial to understand if liberal democracies hope to prevent further insecurity and authoritarianism in cyberspace.

State of Play

Recently, the US led a Declaration for the Future of the Internet along with 60 signatories including the UK, Australia, Colombia, Peru, Niger and many others. The Declaration specifically outlines threats from authoritarian censorship, state-sponsored cyber threats and – fundamentally – the bifurcation of the internet. It also highlights the concerns of an unchecked data economy and the privacy concerns associated with the exploitation of data.

Despite these threats to a free and open cyberspace, Western liberal democracies have relied on China to manufacture and develop technologies for companies and users for decades. It is not surprising that countries designing and manufacturing devices and services are developing and shaping technology in line with their values. Part of maintaining a democratic vision for the internet is to embrace pluralism, including stakeholders, businesses and technologies. However, authoritarian-leaning countries have taken advantage of pluralism to simultaneously profit from liberal democracies and use technology for malign purposes. To complicate the landscape further, both the cyber threat and information operations conducted by malign actors seek to use a free internet to degrade trust in liberal democracies and sow discord.

Russia is a live example of a malign actor seeking to bifurcate the internet through censorship and rerouting data flows in Ukraine. Ukrainian internet service providers have been forced to switch services to Russian providers, routing data through Russia. This is both a practical move, as it assists Russia in extending its information operations and surveillance on Ukraine, but also has symbolic power as it further pulls Ukraine into the Russian sphere. This tactic is not a new phenomenon; scholars working in internet governance have discussed the bifurcation of the internet and the internet as an extension of government power for decades.

China is actively seeking to shape the future of the internet in a way that runs counter to the democratic values of the UK and its partners. For example, it famously adopted the Great Firewall as an extension of state power and implemented invasive censorship. Recently, it has been promoting a new Internet Protocol seeking to segment the internet and create ‘shut off’ protocols, in a proposal submitted to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This creates a government-controlled model, away from the decentralised model used in most countries.

Understanding the complexity and nuance of policy positions and preferences among the middle ground is critical in analysing internet governance voting patterns

Internationally, China has a lot to offer countries seeking state control of the internet. Through the dominance of Huawei in providing cheap telecommunications infrastructure and of Alibaba in digital services, China has equipped itself with valuable exports. The Belt and Road Initiative is a smart and effective way of bringing countries into the Chinese sphere through economic ties. Countries seeking to use the internet as an extension of state power to censor citizens will look to the best-in-class for the most effective model.

Motivating the Middle Ground

Countries that occupy the middle of the spectrum between a multistakeholder and a state-controlled model are poorly understood in the general discourse. It is not always clear what motivations and values underlie middle-ground preferences in internet governance – they can be economic, social, political or a combination.

Middle-ground countries are critical in international forums, especially those with a one-country one-vote system. In the ITU, a technocratic forum that determines global standards for technology and has become a major hotspot in the internet governance landscape, China throws significant resource at dominating working groups and policy discussions. Not only is it difficult for countries with fewer resources to compete for airspace in the ITU, but participation is also dependent on high levels of expertise, which is hard to come by.

The voting behaviour of middle-ground countries is influenced by their own policy preferences and positive relationships with countries who have leading voices in the room. Understanding the complexity and nuance of policy positions and preferences among the middle ground is critical in analysing internet governance voting patterns.

For example, Indonesia’s vibrant and growing digital community is potentially a powerful economic partner in the Indo-Pacific region. However, it scores 48 out of 100 on Freedom House’s measure of Freedom on the Net, with a tendency to block or restrict access to content based on societal values. It is a country that extends its state power online through the rubric of social values, while balancing this with a growing digital economy.

India similarly scores 49 out of 100 on the same Freedom House index. However, it blocks access to internet content for mainly political reasons, viewing Chinese technology and digital services as a threat to its independence and security.

If liberal democracies are committed to a free, open and peaceful internet, they must move beyond declarations or joint statements and focus on tangible interventions

Context matters, particularly if liberal democracies seek to export their own values internationally and influence middle-ground voting behaviour.

Selling the Multistakeholder Model

If liberal democracies are committed to a free, open and peaceful internet, they must move beyond declarations or joint statements and focus on tangible interventions. One opportunity is cyber capacity building, which is currently conducted by the UK and many other countries as a tool to engage on similar interests and develop long-term partnerships. Despite this type of engagement from the UK and its partners, many countries are not bought into the full multistakeholder model. Instead, the offer from China of advanced technology, infrastructure and cyber capabilities that favour state control remains attractive for many middle-ground countries.

If liberal democracies want to limit the bifurcation of the internet and encourage multistakeholderism, they must create innovative and pragmatic solutions that can rival the attractive authoritarian model. Competing with China’s purchasing power is difficult. Pooling resources and investment, coordinating global coverage, and being effective strategic communicators about the benefits of the multistakeholder model could generate significant gains.

Long-term sustained engagement and investment over the course of decades is needed to build mutual respect and shape values. Liberal democracies must recognise concerns over protecting data sovereignty for some middle-ground countries. The first step is to let go of the East-versus-West frame of mind.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sneha Dawda

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