The World Wide Web might have been invented by a Briton working for a European research organization, but let’s face it: The internet is American. The world’s richest tech firms are almost all American, including Apple, the single most valuable publicly traded company in the world. Much of the planet’s communications are sifted through the intelligence agencies of the United States and its proxies. The U.S. government uses American-born tech giants to access the data of millions of non-U.S. citizens, exploiting its home-field advantage over the internet’s architecture. And until just weeks ago, the U.S. had ultimate control over the entire world’s domain name and numbering systems. To top it all off, the internet is explicitly used by the U.S. State Department to preach for American values and interests abroad. It wasn’t always like this.
Back in 2005 and 2006, there was a series of scandals when U.S. tech firms colluded with internet censorship in China—Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. In the most infamous case, Yahoo’s collaboration was said to have resulted in the imprisonment of a journalist, Shi Tao. China quickly became America’s Internet Enemy No. 1. Politicians threatened to create strong legislation to prevent American companies from helping foreign states spy on or censor their citizens. Instead, a self-regulatory model popped up, in which global tech firms in the U.S. and elsewhere pledged to protect internet freedom while—somehow—respecting other countries’ laws. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, urged U.S. media companies to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance.” The interests of American internet giants and of U.S. foreign policy had begun to intermingle.
When U.S. diplomats talk about the free and open internet—and they do, a lot—they mean an internet that is the same in every country, no matter who’s in power. No censorship and blocking, no keeping data local, no using the internet’s myriad technologies of surveillance and control to, well, spy on and control citizens. The opposite of a free and open internet is a series of national “intranets” that police content, intercept communications, and prop up failing states. But it’s hard to completely share America’s enthusiasm for the same internet everywhere, when that internet happens to be so utterly dominated by U.S. firms.
Along with its European and other allies, the U.S. sees the internet as an important vector for the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Although all U.N. member states nominally support human rights, the U.S. and its allies have overtly used “soft power” to press their case to open up more authoritarian countries. But the United States’ Internet Freedom™ agenda—which has existed since the early 2000s—comes packaged with America’s core values and economic interests. And while the internet spreads information and ideas and creates alternative communication platforms to government channels, it also makes it possible (and ever cheaper) for states to find, track, and record everyone and everything.
From 2010 to 2013 we experienced Peak Internet Optimism. In 2010, Hillary Clinton declared web freedom a key U.S. foreign policy objective. In speech after State Department speech, she argued that the internet must be allowed to—and also absolutely-no-question would—drive both political and economic liberalism around the world. And this wasn’t just rhetoric. The U.S. put serious money—$145 million to date—behind its global internet freedom agenda, supporting democracy activists in authoritarian regimes, including apparent allies like Bahrain, Egypt, and Vietnam. Remember all those breathless TV anchors extolling the Twitter revolutions and Facebook uprisings of the Arab Spring? How the internet was going to empower activists and citizen-journalists to fast-track creaking autocracies into youth-driven, market-friendly democracies? How the ideological battle of the 21st century was not between left and right but between open and closed societies?
We now know that social media was just a small part of a complicated situation that brought down or changed governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. (And also that few of these countries have yet to experience a happily ever after.) Although the State Department has toned down the clueless optimism and Silicon Valley–will-fix-politics message, it still preaches the virtues of the internet in allowing dissidents to communicate, organize, and, implicitly, overthrow nasty governments. That message has gone out loud and clear to America’s authoritarian rivals, and they don’t like what they hear.
Just as one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, one country’s “soft power” is another’s weaponized values and existential threat. Because Americans see their values and interests as essentially benign, they completely miss how those abroad interpret what seem like harmless acts. (The Chinese and the Russians read Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, too, and they’re on to you.) Furthermore, much of the Chinese and Russian political class believe the West’s insistence on democracy and human rights is not merely distasteful and unnecessary, but a concerted way to weaken and destabilize them. As it is, Chinese Communist Party cadres are instructed by party bosses to be vigilant against “American efforts to overthrow the communist system through ‘peaceful evolution’—that is, the spread of Western ideas and culture.” Now imagine what the turbo-freedom of America’s global internet looks like to them.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. In 2011, two years after President Obama’s town hall meeting with future Chinese leaders in Shanghai, the state-run newspaper China People’s Daily editorialized about the United States’ deployment of shadow networks in authoritarian countries: “The US State Department has carefully framed its support of such projects as promoting free speech and human rights, but it is clear that the policy is aimed at destabilizing national governments.” It called Tor—software that helps people mask their location—“a weapon in a covert cyber war intended to maintain the US’ global dominance.”
As for Russia, its 2013 foreign policy doctrine complained about the “unlawful use of ‘soft power’ and human rights concepts to exert political pressure on sovereign states, interfere in their internal affairs, destabilize their political situation, manipulate public opinion, including under the pretext of financing cultural and human rights projects abroad.”
How could it all have gone so horribly wrong? Put aside, for a moment, the well-founded cynicism about Russia’s concern for human rights, and also the idea that U.S. ideals about the wider world are essentially benign or at least well-meaning. If you share neither U.S. interests nor its values, the American internet can indeed be a scary thing. I’m Irish and I’ve worked in internet policy since the late 1990s, including five years at ICANN. So I’m not exactly onside with President Putin when he describes the internet as a CIA project. But sometimes, when reading blithe U.S. statements about the internet, I find myself wondering, “Can’t you hear how you sound?”
Want to know how that feels? Let’s play the couples counseling game, “When you say …, I feel …”
When the U.S. says, “Breaking the internet into pieces gives you echo chambers instead of an innovative global marketplace of ideas,” China hears, “I don’t care about your fragile state, demographic time bomb, and ancient culture. I want you to be argumentative and disrespectful like me, so my companies can sell you more stuff.”
When the U.S. says, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Russia hears “We want you to look and sound more like us, and if your crumbling petro-state succumbs to revolution as a result, so be it.”
When President Obama paraphrases the U.S. cybersecurity strategy at a town hall meeting in China as “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become,” China thinks, “You’re a guest and that’s just rude.”
When the U.S. says, “We will work with partners in industry, academia, and NGOs to harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals,” Russia thinks, “We were so right to kick out those foreign NGOs.”
And when Hillary Clinton says, “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day,” you can imagine President Putin pausing as he manfully wrestles the Russian bear to ask, “She said what?”
And it’s not just the world’s other wannabe hegemons that Internet Freedom™ irritates.
When the U.S. says, “More government control is … disastrous for the internet as a whole, because it reduces the dynamism of the internet for everyone,” European countries may well think, “Making the global internet ‘dynamic’ enough for Google and Facebook’s business models is not exactly our No. 1 priority.” Now imagine your fundamental rights, like the right to privacy—hard and rightly won after state data abuses in World War II—are dismissed by your biggest ally as “a chokehold on the free flow of information, which stifles competition and disadvantages American entrepreneurs.”
Then there’s the fact that international internet governance debates are dominated by Americans. Under the guise of multistakeholderism, the huge U.S. delegation swaggers through meeting rooms and hallways, with dozens of corporate lawyers and business lobbyists and the occasional human rights activist. At U.N. meetings, the U.S. delegation is often bigger than the entire diplomatic staff of the poorest countries it deals with. What American diplomats see as effective advocacy appears to others as bull-headed arrogance and determination to make the world safe for Big Tech’s business model. The governments of developing countries are worried their shaky infrastructure can’t deal with spam or that the national telecoms company is losing money to YouTube and WhatsApp. But they just get a pat on the head and a lecture about globalization. No wonder they throw their votes China’s way and collude with technocrats who want to run the internet from behind closed government doors in Geneva.
Why does this matter? Because those of us working for a real free and open (and competitive and equal) internet are being undercut by all this guff about Freedom™. In a post-Snowden world, not many of us think the U.S. wholeheartedly believes—let alone will live—its own ideals. The Russias and Chinas pretty much shrug their shoulders at the public exposure of well-understood U.S. hypocrisy. If they ran the internet, that’s precisely what they’d have done.
But the U.S. is losing legitimacy and influence on the global internet because it seems not to know or care how it appears to others in the middle ground—the governments that vote at the U.N., the countries making choices every day about what kind of internet they support.
Much of the bad feeling is inevitable and doesn’t really have an answer. The internet drives profound and very public change, and the people at the sharp end of change don’t have to like it, whether they’re the owner of a badly reviewed hotel or the secretary of the Communist Party of China. But when one country enjoys so much of the control and so many of the benefits, and the technology looks to many more like an ideology, you get blowback. It’s vital to understand why.
This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.