The United States, all member states of the European Union and 32 non-EU countries have announced a “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” setting out the priorities for an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure” Internet . It emphasizes goals such as affordability, net neutrality, and removing illegal content without restricting free speech — though it offers few details on how to achieve them.
The three-page statement, also summarized by the White House and the European Commission, offers a broad view of the net and a mix of more specific issues for the 61 signatories. “We are united by the belief in the potential of digital technologies to promote connectivity, democracy, peace, the rule of law, sustainable development and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the document begins. But “access to the open internet is restricted by some authoritarian governments and online platforms and digital tools are increasingly used to suppress free speech and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The statement emphasizes that the internet must be decentralized and globally connected, and says that countries must “refrain from undermining the technical infrastructure that is essential to the general availability and integrity of the internet”. That is an implicit rejection of the ‘splinternet’, an internet fragmented by countries banning services and cutting off online access. It counters the views of countries like Russia and China (neither of which are signatories) that have severely restricted access to foreign sites and apps. It also contradicts failed Ukrainian requests to cut Russia off from global domain services.
The discussion of privacy and security in the document reflects steps taken by the EU in particular in recent years, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Digital Services Act (DSA), which will impose stricter obligations on web services to protect illegal content. remove it and prevent it from harming users. It denounces the use of “algorithmic tools or techniques” for surveillance and suppression, including social credit scorecards – a concept the EU has weighed in on legislation after it became ubiquitous in China.
The signatories also agree to uphold the principles of net neutrality and “refrain from blocking or impairing access to legal content, services and applications on the Internet,” although it does not discuss any laws that would prevent private Internet service providers from doing so. It’s not clear how this language would comply with signatories’ rules, such as the UK’s Online Safety Bill, which requires companies to reduce the visibility of “legal but harmful” content online.
Most of the principles cover well-trodden ground, but some details are less closely tied to contemporary regulatory debates. Signatories agree to work together to, for example, “reduce as much as possible the environmental footprint of the internet and digital technologies”. That commitment could come into play as countries explore how to regulate and adopt cryptocurrency, which is often energy-intensive. Despite its name, however, the statement is broad enough not to tell us much about how countries will shape the future of the Internet — at least no more than their regulations already have.