Strengthening the Internet 17 November 2023

The United States Takes a Dangerous Step Back from Core Internet Principles

The United States Trade Representative has taken a dangerous step back from fundamental principles that ensure the growth of an open, secure, trustworthy, and globally connected Internet. By abandoning these principles that protect the free flow of information online, the United States is contributing to the global erosion of the Internet.

The United States has a long history of leading global initiatives to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for all. In a recent World Trade Organization meeting, however, the United States dropped several principles critical to the development, growth, and success of the Internet, including:

  • Support for cross-border data flows: At the Internet Society, we know the Internet relies on data flows to connect people, schools, hospitals, governments, and critical infrastructure across the world. The flow of the data is determined by the networks involved, and not any authority. It is a core part of what makes the Internet so valuable to people worldwide.
  • Opposition of mandated data localization rules: Modern data and networking systems that we work with at the Internet Society shuffle and scramble data across the globe to protect and deliver it as efficiently as possible via the Internet. Beyond harming efficiency and access speed, forcing data to be housed in one place is a security risk that makes our personal data more vulnerable to intruders. Such mandates also reduce the overall resilience of the Internet in the face of local or regional disruptions arising from natural or human-caused disaster.
  • Opposition of discriminatory data policies: In our work at the Internet Society, we recognize that rules that determine which data is permitted or prohibited on national networks can hinder communication and cross-border Internet services, making it difficult for people to connect with each other. It also forces networks to have to inspect traffic—something only the largest businesses will be able to do—and puts both national security and citizens at risk of harm from surveillance and censorship.
  • Opposition of national demands to see the source code of foreign companies: At the Internet Society, we see demanding access to source code as akin to requiring companies to provide each government with a functional factory. Such demands not only create enormous risks to commercial trade secrets, they also open up significant cybersecurity threats and surveillance opportunities.

These principles are crucial for a unified and decentralized global Internet. Undermining them creates significant barriers to global communication. It deprives the world of some of the most important benefits that the Internet offers—the ability to access information from around the world, communicate around the world, and share the same online experience with family and friends around the world.

This foundational principle of the Internet—that if you can connect to the Internet, you can reach the world—is its unique value proposition. Without it, both education and medical care would suffer because people around the world would not be able to access the full body of knowledge on the Internet. Human rights would suffer because nations could restrict the ability of their citizens to access information that challenges the views of the government. Economic opportunity—especially for smaller companies—would be limited because it would be too expensive to comply with data regulations in numerous different countries. At the most basic level, people would be less able to keep in touch with loved ones, a basic yet critical feature of the Internet that helped much of the world through the recent pandemic. Data localization rules could make services like shared chat platforms impossible, meaning a grandparent might not be able to read a news story from another country about a grandchild’s athletic event.

The United States has been a global leader in promoting open communications around the world. Its dramatic shift in digital trade policy threatens to undermine and undo over two decades of support for a global Internet. It will encourage countries worldwide to follow suit and erect new walls along country borders to restrict the flow of information in the name of digital sovereignty. The result of such policies is not “national internets” or “regional internets”, but the loss of the Internet.

We call on the US government to reverse course and clarify its position to re-assert its support for an open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet.

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