Future Tense

It’s Not Too Late to Save the Internet

The Trump administration has done enormous damage to the free and open internet worldwide. Here’s what would need to happen to reboot it.

Low Wi-Fi signal blinking above Donald Trump's head
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

An internet blackout in Belarus last week was the latest reminder of why an open internet is essential to human rights in the 21st century. The Belarusian government began disrupting internet service early on Sunday, Aug. 9, shortly before voting started in a presidential election that opposition candidates and activists believe was rigged in favor of longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko. By the end of the day, when protesters flooded into the street, the internet blackout had grown more entrenched, preventing real-time coverage of the bloody crackdown that ensued. According to the independent monitoring group NetBlocks, service only resumed on the morning of Aug. 12. By that point, more than 6,000 people had been arrested and many opposition leaders driven out of the country, including the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. During the blackout, one of the few lifelines between protesters and the outside world was an information channel called Nexta, operating out of Poland through the messaging app Telegram.

What happened in Belarus is a reminder of why a free and open global internet is vital for democracy. Perhaps most famously, the Chinese Communist Party has fenced off China’s internet from the rest of the world. The Chinese people are surveilled, censored, and manipulated with propaganda and disinformation through apps, networks, and networking equipment controlled by Chinese companies that are held liable for everything their users say and do. China’s “sovereign internet” doctrine—which states that all governments have a sovereign right to control what technologies and networks their citizens can use and how they can use them—appeals to many world leaders who fear strong political opposition. Internet sovereignty is embraced not only by the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin but also by democratically elected populist leaders seeking to shore up their power. For example, India’s Narendra Modi recently moved to block Chinese apps including WeChat and TikTok, citing national security concerns, with the side benefit of denying activists channels for dissent.

The Trump administration is pursuing its own version of internet sovereignty. Trump recently announced a ban on Chinese-owned apps like TikTok and WeChat, and the State Department announced the expansion of its “clean” network program, which seeks to purge Chinese companies and technologies from U.S. networks. There are indeed valid security concerns about networking technology sold by the Chinese company Huawei. It is certainly true that, as Chinese-owned apps, TikTok and WeChat are subject to surveillance and censorship demands by their home government, extending Chinese government controls to users around the world. But eliminating Chinese tech from U.S. networks and platforms only protects people from Chinese government surveillance conducted directly via Chinese companies. It does nothing to protect users from hackers and spies—including Chinese state-sponsored attacks—who take advantage of companies’ security vulnerabilities and lax privacy standards.

If Trump obtains a second term, his policies will empower and legitimize efforts by governments around the world to fence off different parts of the internet in service of their own geopolitical and domestic objectives. Asserting internet sovereignty already helps incumbent leaders and their political parties tip the scales to manipulate elections and manufacture their own legitimacy, particularly in countries with weak or deteriorating rule of law—which is now on a steady global decline, including in the U.S. If the Trump administration helps to normalize the banning and blocking of entire apps and platforms, strongmen will be in an even stronger position.

Cross-border trust between and among governments, companies, and individuals has hit an all-time low, even with democratic allies and longtime trading partners. In July, the European Court of Justice struck down the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield agreement, a legal mechanism that enables U.S. companies to transfer data between the EU and the U.S. (For example, when somebody in Europe uses Google or Dropbox to store and share documents, that data may be stored or pass through U.S.-based computer servers.) The court determined that Europeans’ rights are insufficiently protected under U.S. jurisdiction. It pointed to the failure of U.S. law to offer adequate privacy protections, surveillance programs that grant overly broad access to personal data by U.S. government agencies, and the absence of a right of private action by EU citizens in U.S. courts. This is the second time that a U.S.-EU data transfer agreement has been struck down in court. The implications are clear: If the next Congress fails to pass a strong federal privacy law and enact significant surveillance reforms, the EU will erect even stronger digital boundaries, further fragmenting the internet.

If the American people deny Trump a second term, the Biden-Harris administration will need to reboot America’s internet policy and recommit to a vision of an open internet through which data and information can flow freely. Congress must take decisive steps to protect internet users from abuse of government surveillance powers. It must curb invasive and opaque commercial data tracking that not only enables platforms and advertisers to manipulate users’ behavior, but also serves up a treasure trove of behavioral data that is currently available for purchase on the open market—by anyone, including directly and indirectly by a range of intelligence agencies. Legislative action to protect the rights of people who use U.S. companies’ networks and platforms will make it easier for governments and companies to work together toward further transparency and accountability standards.

Transparency standards for government access to data are the next essential step. If the U.S. and EU take the lead, other nations that seek to benefit from being part of an open and interconnected internet are likely to follow. In the wake of the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, many U.S. companies sought to repair the loss of trust with their global customers about the extent of U.S. surveillance access to their data. A growing number of companies have begun to publish “transparency reports,” containing information about the volume and nature of government requests for user data that they receive and comply with. Some European telecommunications companies (such as Spanish multinational Telefónica and Sweden’s Telia) and even some East Asian companies (like South Korea’s chat app Kakao and the Japanese-Korean chat app LINE) have since followed suit. As the implications of TikTok’s Chinese origins came under increasing scrutiny in Washington, the company responded by producing a transparency report of its own. Zoom, which is U.S.-owned but has substantial operations in China, has also promised to publish transparency reports to address consumer and regulatory concerns. Right now, however, transparency reports are voluntary, vary widely in quality and scope, and are not independently audited or verified. Lawmakers could change that.

Governments seeking to improve mutual cross-border trust could make transparency reporting mandatory for companies over a certain size, or otherwise confer an official certification to companies whose transparency reports meet certain standards and have been audited. More importantly, governments themselves need to be more transparent and accountable about their surveillance activities through commercial digital services. A 2017 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that while some countries have made steps toward greater transparency and accountability in surveillance practices, the effectiveness of oversight mechanisms was mixed, and citizens’ access to legal remedy in cases of abuse was generally not straightforward. The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence does issue an annual report with data on the use of national surveillance authorities. Buried in the most recent report is evidence that the FBI recently failed to comply with warrant requirements. It is not currently possible, however, for European users of U.S. digital services to obtain redress for such abuses of surveillance power. Establishing such cross-border mechanisms and norms between countries with strong rule of law and human rights protections is essential to building confidence in the viability—and desirability—of an open internet through which data and information can flow freely across borders.

The U.S. must work with allies to ensure that the design, operation, and governance of digital platforms, services, and devices is consistent with universal human rights standards. Back in 2011, more than a year after then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the Obama administration’s global internet freedom agenda, the U.S. and the Netherlands launched the Freedom Online Coalition, “a group of governments who have committed to work together to support Internet freedom and protect fundamental human rights—free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online—worldwide.” Membership in this coalition, which has received little media attention since its founding, has since grown from 15 to 32 members. The coalition is led mainly by foreign ministries that negotiate statements and diplomatic communiqués at the United Nations and other multilateral policy bodies, but it has had little effect on member countries’ national legislation, or on the actions of members’ domestic surveillance agencies. There is presently no mechanism for member states to hold one another accountable for their human rights commitments. At the very least, member states should submit action plans for how they will uphold their commitments to protect human rights online. A key metric should be an assessment of the extent to which national laws affecting the internet are consistent with international human rights standards, with a report on progress made toward reforming laws that are not, accompanied by independent civil society responses. Countries that show no progress or obvious bad faith should be put on notice and, ultimately, expelled if necessary.

Across Europe, there is growing legislative momentum around requiring companies to conduct formal due diligence processes to identify how their business operations affect human rights, and to demonstrate to shareholders and consumers what they are doing to mitigate harm. A new U.S. administration should work with Congress to pass similar laws, thereby empowering consumers and shareholders to hold companies accountable for whether companies that offer digital services to millions of Americans are even paying attention to how their business models and product design affect users’ rights. In both Europe and the U.S., such due diligence laws must include digital rights such as freedom of expression and privacy.

Trump’s vision of internet sovereignty is an attempt to beat China at its own game of great power competition among digital spheres of influence. But Trumpian internet sovereignty offers nothing to the people of other nations beyond an invitation to choose sides in the competition between great powers. A Biden administration will need to address real challenges posed by China while also restoring global faith in an open, interoperable internet upon which open societies and open markets depend. This agenda for privacy and security, transparency, and accountability will require extraordinary leadership and political will to implement. The future of democracy around the world likely depends on it.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.