The reasons why a free and open internet could spell the web’s downfall

The writing’s on the wall.
The writing’s on the wall.
Image: Reuters/Pichi Chuang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In January 2010, secretary of state Hillary Clinton stood before the world and delivered a landmark address, calling the internet a “new nervous system for the planet.” She was describing an emerging State Department doctrine known as the “internet freedom agenda,” which built on a universal declaration that “people have the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The open internet, she suggested, could help open up closed societies and support the “peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress.”

Seven years later—and in light of US intelligence community’s consensus that Russia weaponized social media to influence the 2016 election—it’s worth reflecting on Clinton’s call for a borderless, open internet.

Clinton, the odds-on favorite to win the 2016 US presidential election, argued that the free flow of information could topple the world’s autocrats. But she was herself vanquished—at least in part—by state-sponsored hackers who aggressively exploited the free flow of information. They flooded the media environment with leaks, half-truths, manufactured support, hoaxes, and outright lies, which sewed distrust and compromised the Clinton campaign’s ability to get its message out. Wikileaks also played a key role, publishing thousands of emails that Kremlin-backed hackers allegedly stole from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

The internet freedom agenda presumed the benefits of the free flow of information only cut one way: in favor of open societies, values, and ideals. But we’re now seeing that its destabilizing effects cut both ways. And that doesn’t bode well for the borderless internet we enjoy today.

The pros and cons of an open internet

The future of the open internet should seem assured. It has always, in one way or another, been considered a geopolitical strength and a source of considerable soft power for the US. After all, the internet was invented in America and is largely operated by big American companies.

But what if—years or decades into a seemingly permanent information war—the price of an unfettered, free flow of information strikes America’s political leaders as too high?

The open internet provides a vast canvas for states to undertake information warfare, manipulate each other’s citizens, and project their interests past national borders—open societies are particularly vulnerable. Here’s a thought experiment to explain. Imagine two adversary states. Blue State is a relatively open society with little digital censorship or restrictions. Blue State’s citizens get their worldview from their newsfeeds. Red State, on the other hand, has nationalized its internet and erected digital borders. The information available to Red State’s citizens is carefully managed.

In any information warfare scenario, Red State has a definite advantage—it can meddle in Blue State’s open platforms and free flow of information to surreptitiously spread fear and misinformation, sow divisions, and undermine public confidence. Blue State can’t reciprocate or interfere with what is going on inside of Red State, because Red State’s citizens aren’t exposed to the uncensored internet. That means it’s a win-win for the Red State, which gets to protect its culture and sovereignty while keeping out unwanted foreign influence.

The open internet creates an asymmetric threat: As long as Blue State remains “open,” it’s at a real disadvantage against Red State. This mode of thinking can help explain the complex challenges facing open societies over the next decade. And to match the world’s retreating liberalism, there are already signs of nationalistic and isolationist withdrawal from the free, borderless network we’ve enjoyed for decades.

Where do the internet’s borders lie?

One of the founding, revolutionary documents of the open internet, The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, famously declares that cyberspace transcends all national borders. But that’s not the whole story.

At a technical level, the internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks using shared protocols like TCP/IP to communicate. For most of its short history, the internet has had scarcely any centralized planning or governance. It’s a miracle that it managed to connect 3.6 billion people around the globe. The internet we have today represents an ideal: instantaneous, unmediated global exchange between ideas and cultures, regardless of national boundaries. In other words, it’s an idea-dissemination machine.

Nations weigh the perceived destabilizing effects of this idea-dissemination machine against its benefits for economic development, trade, productivity, and intellectual and cultural exchange, setting their national access policies accordingly. For instance, authoritarian regimes routinely order an internet shutdown when political opposition manifests. And there’s virtually no access to the outside internet in North Korea, although there are a few dozen sites operated by the state to guarantee complete ideological conformity.

But even liberal democracies strike a balance between a managed internet and the totally free flow of information: Just look to Britain and South Korea, where ISPs must limit access to pornography, or the almost 30 countries where ISPs have been ordered to block The Pirate Bay. Digital borders—real or virtual, technically enforced or court-ordered—are being erected all the time.

China is the largest power to opt out of the open internet entirely. And this has historical precedence: After the death of chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s de-facto leader and took steps to open up China to foreign trade and knowledge exchange. But, Deng warned, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” This belief forms the core of China’s policies for internet access and usage.

Unlike the anything-goes open internet, China’s internet is enclosed by Golden Shield, a censorship and surveillance project operated by the Ministry of Public Security that seeks to “keep the flies out,” per se. The most famous part of Golden Shield is the Great Firewall of China, a combination of legislative and technological actions that restricts citizens’ access to foreign services like Google, Facebook, and the New York Times.

By building an effectively “national” internet that favors homegrown services and embodies national values, China gets all the benefits of networked modernity with none of its drawbacks. Privately operated foreign platforms where dissent, opposition, or subversive ideas may flourish—like many social media sites common in the rest of the world—aren’t permitted to reach beyond the Great Firewall without absolute concessions to China’s national interests. And bricks in this wall are being laid higher and higher: As of this year, and after many years of official ambiguity, unauthorized VPNs that allow Chinese netizens to circumvent digital borders are finally, explicitly, illegal.

“The splinternet”

China’s internet policy may be a forerunner of a federated, loosely connected set of national internets called “the splinternet.” This future potential state of affairs would be characterized by digital borders that are meant to protect both real and cognitive sovereignty while keeping out unwanted foreign competition or influence. In this way, rather than the global village envisaged by the 20th-century counterculture, the mid-21st century internet might actually turn out to be a federation of loosely connected national platforms closely aligned with state power.

On its surface, the splinternet may resemble today’s open internet, and would probably run on the same technologies and protocols. But the access and trade policies of individual states will combine to create wildly different experiences for users across different countries, with less exchange between regional internets.

This system would not likely appear suddenly or dramatically: It would emerge over decades as a sea change of small technical and legal changes slowly add up. The rise of geopolitical information warfare is likely to accelerate this change. For example, shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, the Kremlin published a new plan to defend Russia against foreign powers’ “information-psychological” methods that seek to influence its domestic population with online information. The plan describes a threat to Russia similar to the US’s accusations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The doctrine contains many elements that move Russian closer toward a state-run internet. For example, it proposes to accelerate work to gain control over the Russian segment of the web by basing more servers inside the country, and even grants the authority to operate the Russian internet autonomously—if needed, in a time of war—by switching it off from the rest of the world. This follows on from a law Russia passed a law in 2014 that requires user data to be stored in national servers located in the country. In late 2016, Russian courts ordered ISPs to block access to LinkedIn after it failed to comply with the law.

Back in America, the idea of a digital border doesn’t seem so far from the protectionist, isolationist, “build that wall!” worldview. US president Donald Trump, after all, mused during the presidential campaign that “we have to go see Bill Gates… [about] closing that internet up in some way” in order to combat ISIS propaganda. But what if this mode of thought was extended to include other foreign adversaries?

The irony of the internet freedom agenda

In late 2011, two years after Clinton first introduced the internet freedom agenda, pro-democracy Russian opposition coordinated demonstrations on Facebook, which exploded into mass protests on the streets of Moscow. Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia, openly accused Clinton’s State Department of orchestrating the demonstrations. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs and defend our sovereignty,” he asserted.

Fast-forward five years to one of Clinton’s first public appearances after her election-day defeat. Speaking to the deluge of Russian-directed propaganda and misinformation, she declared that social media “can have real consequences.” Her speech stood in sharp contrast to her triumphant 2010 statements on the free flow of information.

“It’s a danger that must be addressed, and addressed quickly,” she said. “Bipartisan legislation is making its way through Congress to boost the government’s response to foreign propaganda, and Silicon Valley is starting to grapple with the challenge and threat of fake news. It’s imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy.”

That’s right: Clinton, the architect of America’s internet freedom policy, now wants American leaders to better defend against foreign influence.

There’s a strange metonymy in her calls to protect American democracy, the Kremlin’s call to the patriotic traditions of defending the Fatherland, and Beijing’s call to vigilance against the erosion of cultural values. Each of these warnings speaks to the same underlying desires: sovereignty, and the right way to manage information and open borders.

The splinternet may be closer than we think. State-sponsored influence campaigns are now extending deeper into the domestic affairs of liberal democracies: For example, the US Senate Intelligence Committee chairman now warns that Russia is “actively involved” in swaying upcoming European elections. And a Freedom House report recently noted that internet freedom declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2016 as authoritarian states move to restrict access and limit foreign influence.

The internet freedom agenda has been criticized for being naive, inconsistent, misguided, and even malevolent—but the underlying values of the internet freedom agenda are still the right ones: freedom of expression, freedom of exchange, and a more open world. Will we still cherish these values, even as we learn of new threats to sovereignty and security? Our answer may determine whether the internet remains a global village or web of walled-off warrens.