Follow Us:

A beginning

Attempting to put in place rules of the game, as it were, to prevent the internet from becoming a tool to further inequality, repression, and intrusion into private spaces in the chaotic ecology of a tech-fuelled world is not a task for the faint-hearted.

Statesman News Service |

Attempting to put in place rules of the game, as it were, to prevent the internet from becoming a tool to further inequality, repression, and intrusion into private spaces in the chaotic ecology of a tech-fuelled world is not a task for the faint-hearted. Yet, a beginning has been made in this direction with the unveiling by Washington of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet ~ a new global partnership that seeks to set the norms for the use of technology by nation-states ~ on 28 April. The declaration, though non-binding in nature, has been signed by 61 nations and aims to establish a code of practice for how signatories should engage with the web. But the path for this agreement ~ which some supporters have prematurely spoken of in the same breath as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is at least a normative ideal for countries calling themselves democracies ~ to acquire global heft will be arduous with no guarantee that the destination will be reached. 

It is unlikely to have any material impact, for example, on the “digital authoritarianism” which the West accuses its adversaries such as China and Russia of practising and having institutionalised. But, says law and governance expert Alex Engler, the declaration is expected to warn off wavering democracies from internet transgressions. And that’s a start. The declaration’s vision for the internet is broad. It aspires to promote universal internet access, protect human rights, ensure fair economic competition, design secure digital infrastructure, encourage pluralism and freedom of expression, and guarantee a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance. The document is, in that sense, a reflection of the diverse interests of its signatories and far more inclusive when compared to an early draft (leaked in 2021) which prioritised US economic interests. Some officials, Engler points out, have presented the declaration as an alternative to the model of digital authoritarianism, and the media narrative has largely promoted the initiative as the US and its allies “taking on” non-democratic world powers. 

The American policy establishment, however, is not unaware of the fact that neither Beijing nor Moscow gives a hoot. The Joe Biden administration is, therefore, approaching the declaration more as an instrument to prevent backsliding on their commitments on a non-restrictive internet by democracies which may be wavering as they deal with the chaos generated by the digital world. This includes but is not restricted to increased societal fissures, religious strife, and political polarisation, not to mention the encouragement of violent, state-seeking separatism. At the declaration’s launch event, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said: “It’s not about what we are against, it’s about what we are for. It’s about an affirmative vision.” This, experts are agreed, is as clear a signal as there can be that the declaration recognises its limitations ~ its focus is on ensuring compliance by signatories, not the rest of the world.