'Future of the internet' requires willingness to change here in the US

The White House has circulated a plan, seeking support from democratic countries for the future of the internet. The initiative responds to long-standing concerns, such as state control of content, and emerging issues, including tech industry dominance. The goal is political commitments from democratic allies for a common vision.

The U.S. initiative should be welcomed. In the early days, many believed that the internet would be a force for democratic reform. Now, many fear that the internet has undermined democracy with hate speech, disinformation, and an economic model that pushes political dialogue to the extremes.

Still, the Biden administration will need to pursue this initiative with a clear-eyed understanding that many of the problems with the internet of today originated in the United States.

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First, there is the problem of the multi-stakeholder process. In the early days of internet governance, this formula for decision-making emerged from the technical organizations responsible for internet standards. “Rough consensus and running code” was the mantra, and that worked well, before commercial firms laid claim to vast swathes of the internet landscape.

Today democratic decision-making requires democratic institutions, the rule of law, and a formal process with concrete outcomes. Everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to participate. Businesses should be part of the process, but they should not define the process.

There is, for example, the problem of private advisory bodies. The Facebook Oversight Board imagines itself an international tribunal, resolving disputes over the business practices of a trillion-dollar company. But these decisions are not enforceable. Facebook chooses to comply or not, depending on the benefits to the company. To democratic nations, this arrangement fails the test of meaningful independent review.

Leaders in democratic nations have a similar problem with the decision of tech firms to “de-platform” former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel, a pillar of democratic values and no fan of Mr. Trump, said it was problematic that Trump’s accounts were suspended. Commissioner Thierry Briton, now responsible for many of the European initiatives for the digital society, expressed similar concerns. Briton remarked, “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.”

The message from democratic leaders to Washington should be clear: Even if we favor the outcome, we still want legal standards for these decisions. The tech firms should not be left to regulate themselves.

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“Data localization” also requires a rethink. The First Amendment advocates will need to put down their banners for a moment and recognize that efforts by foreign governments to limit the flow of personal data beyond their borders is often a response to mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, and the failure of the U.S. to update its privacy laws.

Also critical will be the willingness of the U.S. to accept regulation of algorithmic-based decision-making. Too many internet vulnerabilities and too many social problems, including bias and inequity, are amplified by opaque algorithms. For the U.S. to lead on the internet and democratic values, it will need to set out a clear vision to address the problems of bias and misinformation, made worse by unregulated technologies.

Democratic values also require meaningful public participation in policy making. The National Security Commission on AI failed that test. The secret meetings of tech leaders and defense agencies kept the public and the press outside the room until a final report was released.

Progress is possible. The United States could update privacy laws and create a commission to regulate tech firms. Support for a strong legal framework to promote data free flow with trust would also be welcome by democratic allies. 

The White House proposal makes repeated calls for a return to the “original vision of the internet.” That era is very familiar to me. I worked closely with civil society organizations and computer scientists as the internet was transitioning from a research program to a commercial platform.

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We said back then that the internet holds great promise for the future: “The convergence of communications technologies and the expansion of network services will transform our society and create unparalleled opportunities.”

But we also said the benefits of the internet should not be framed solely in economic or functional terms. The nation’s communications infrastructure should reflect the values of a democratic society. We wrote: “Ultimately, the success of the internet should be measured by whether it empowers citizens, protects individual rights, and strengthens the democratic institutions on which this country was founded.”

The Biden administration is right to focus on the “future of internet” at the upcoming Democracy Summit. But much of the work ahead lies within our own borders.

Marc Rotenberg currently heads the Center for AI and Digital Policy. He is a former chair of the Public Interest Registry, which manages the .ORG domain. He delivered the report "A Public Interest Vision of the Internet" to then Vice President Gore in 1993.