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A rules-based order to keep the Internet open and secure

A rules-based order to keep the Internet open and secure

When J.P. Barlow presented his 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in Davos, cyberspace was idealized as a separate universe, detached from the 'real' world, with no government controls and no national boundaries. Twenty-two years later, this libertarian dream of the open internet has been buried with J.P. Barlow. The internet has increasingly become an essential element to furthering people´s development and freedom, as well as a foundation for economic growth and international trade. The stakes for nation-states to exercise control over its functioning have thus become higher and the global internet has now become a platform for political, economic, and military power. Additionally, private companies have become powerful, global actors in the online environment.

When J.P. Barlow presented his 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" in Davos, cyberspace was idealized as a separate universe, detached from the 'real' world, with no government controls and no national boundaries. Twenty-two years later, this libertarian dream of the open internet has been buried with J.P. Barlow.


The European Union and the United States have historically been the guardians and advocates of a rules-based system, and should be best positioned to develop global rules for the open internet, based on the rule of law. However, there is a wide gap to be bridged between promise and practice. Both American and European leaders have had moments of promoting an open, free and secure internet as part of foreign policy. In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched her Internet Freedom Strategy that promoted the freedom to connect, centered upon "the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other." She urged media companies to "take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance." The EU followed suit and promoted its 'No Disconnect' strategy in the wake of the Arab Spring, which aimed to ensure that "information and communication technology can remain a driver of political freedom, democratic development and economic growth." The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, stated that "the EU is determined to resist any unjustified restrictions on the Internet and other new media".

The European Union and the United States have historically been the guardians and advocates of a rules-based system, and should be best positioned to develop global rules for the open internet, based on the rule of law. However, there is a wide gap to be bridged between promise and practice.

However, the legacy of these much-touted '21st century statecraft' policies is minimal. The EU has quietly abandoned its No-Disconnect strategy and, after the Snowden revelations, the US lost its credibility when it came to promoting online freedom. Similarly, in the wake of a number of terrorist attacks on European soil, the EU has proposed measures that have eroded the high standards on internet freedom Europe had earlier promised to uphold. In general, Europe focuses now almost exclusively on the potential threats that were associated with the rise of the internet and new technologies, as opposed to focus predominantly on its liberating effect. Both European and American companies continue at the same speed to export highly sophisticated surveillance systems to dictatorships. Both actors have lost precious time to seek effective leadership towards a rules-based system to preserve the open internet globally. 

Read more (Georgetown Journal of International Affairs)

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