On February 24, 2020, Air Force One landed in Gujarat, India, the birthplace and home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—kicking off the Trump administration’s two-day visit with India’s business and political elite. The sojourn commenced with a rally of music, dancers, and over 100,000 Indian citizens packed into the Motera cricket stadium who cheered on Donald Trump's and Modi’s stump speeches on a glass-protected stage. “Namaste,” Trump declared to a roar of applause.
Central to the visit’s agenda was “5G security,” a coded reference to Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei and Washington’s insistence that allies and partners exclude its equipment from 5G networks. American officials had spent months trying to sway other nations, to virtually no avail. India was no exception: In December 2019, India’s telecom minister told reporters that Huawei could participate in the country’s 5G trials.
US officials were bent on changing that reality. Within New Delhi’s Roosevelt House—the gold-pillared residence of the US ambassador—the Trump administration gathered energy magnates, tech executives, and other power brokers at a roundtable. 5G quickly reared its head as Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest businessman, stood up and touted his firm’s exclusion of Huawei equipment. “That’s good,” Trump replied. “Good.”
Strangely, though, 5G received little more mention in the hours of discussions that followed. For all the behind-the-scenes meetings and public charades of unity—a MAGA-style rally, Modi and Trump hugging, Indian and US flags intermingled—no consensus was reached on 5G. Despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric about the spread of Chinese digital repression, Washington’s campaign continued to fall flat—and a Chinese telecom that US officials see as a grave risk continued entrenching itself in India’s digital infrastructure.
What happened in India wasn’t merely the consequence of political posturing. It’s the product of a much deeper issue: the failure of promoting internet freedom under President Trump. More countries are following the dictator’s model for the internet, but under the current administration, the US is doing alarmingly little about it.
It wasn’t always this way. The Bush and Obama administrations promoted and defended online freedom in a vision of global internet access, albeit with their own setbacks and miscalculations. Even with slowly declining investment and emphasis on diplomacy writ large in the United States, scores of diplomats the world over spent countless hours assisting smaller countries to build cybercrime policing capacity, vocally condemning internet repression in authoritarian countries, and combating Russian and Chinese internet regulation proposals at the United Nations. Many of these efforts have eroded.
The Trump administration has gutted vital diplomatic organs, from USAID funding to the State Department’s cyber-focused work, creating a leadership vacuum—one which authoritarian governments are stepping in to fill. More countries are cracking down on the internet within their borders: Foreign news websites are blocked; domestic political bloggers are thrown in prison; social media companies’ content policies are brought to heel. Dictators are increasingly defining the future of the internet, undermining its once global and open form in favor of digital state control meshed with harsh offline coercion.
Growing internet repression, coupled with the increasingly publicized harms of a largely unregulated US tech sector, necessitates a reinvigoration of American leadership for global internet freedom. Such an objective has many to-dos: from rethinking how politics and technology collide in the modern online space to reckoning with how US companies may assist or engage in the very kinds of abuses that hurt speech and organization on and through the internet. On a fundamental level, the US needs diplomats to promote these agendas—making it more important than ever, including with the uncertainty of the November election, for the US to reinvest in digital diplomacy before it’s too late.
Around 2006, R. David Edelman began to ask, “If one country shuts down another country’s internet, is it an act of war?”
When he took the question to Oxford, while studying international relations, not all of his professors were receptive. One of them, he says, “an eminent historian of World War I, pulled me aside and said, ‘Boy, know this: There is nothing new under the sun in warfare. So, take your talents and apply them to something more practical.’”
Edelman did ultimately write his dissertation on restraining state use of cyberattacks. Though many were dismissing it, the internet was rapidly becoming entangled with politics. Facebook and Google, global internet connectivity, criminal hacking syndicates, state-developed military cyber units, all rapidly on the rise. In an oft-cited episode in 2007, the Estonian government moved a controversial Soviet World War II memorial in the country’s Tallinn capital, prompting Russian digital attacks on the websites of Estonian banks, government ministries, newspapers, and more.
“I was interested in these questions purely in the abstract,” Edelman says, “and they became real and concrete right in front of me as the years went on.” Which is precisely how he found himself at the State Department in 2008 in its early days of cyber. He’d go on to serve as the National Security Council’s first director for international cyber policy from 2010 to 2012, and now teaches at MIT. In the early days, Edelman and the State Department focused on making “cyber diplomacy” a reality.
Day-to-day, the conduct of digital diplomacy was a mix of activities: Distilling internet policy for busy diplomats with many other items top-of-agenda. Convening bilateral and multilateral meetings on technological challenges, like on the sidelines of global summits. Working across the many US agencies with skin in the game to write foundational policy.
For the most part, says Edelman, they spent their time “clarifying what exactly the US stands for” in international cyberspace. They did this using a diverse toolkit: asking other countries questions about cybersecurity, advancing dialogs about online freedom, explaining US policy, and deliberately investing in relationships.
Before long, soon after Edelman left for the White House National Security Council in 2010, the State Department made technology issues the specific focus of a new diplomatic office.
The Cyberspace Policy Review conducted at the beginning of the Obama administration included “a recommendation that we really step up our game diplomatically,” says Chris Painter, who participated in the review and who, from that directive, established the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues in 2011. That Review also spurred the creation of the US government’s first-of-its-kind International Strategy for Cyberspace out of the White House.
It was no quiet period for global tech issues. In 2011, Egyptian authorities shut down the internet amid pro-democracy protests; brutal military crackdowns on demonstrators soon followed. In 2013, the Edward Snowden leaks spurred public outcry over surveillance programs and forced US officials to tackle digital espionage programs in their diplomatic messaging. For whatever derision that dismissed internet policy as niche, the geopolitical ramifications—from protest and oppression to surveillance and commerce—would only become starker.
“My office had a pretty broad sweep of trying to look at all these issues, because we knew that these were not siloed,” says Painter, now the president of the nonprofit Global Forum on Cyber Expertise Foundation. “The key thing was signaling that this was not just this technical issue that people often thought of it as—this kind of boutique issue—but a real foreign policy issue, one that you don’t need to be a coder to understand.” Painter noted the Obama administration’s work on cyber-enabled theft of trade secrets, tackled in a 2015 agreement with the Chinese government, as emblematic of this strategy.
Painter’s portfolio included engagement across the US diplomatic apparatus, from the State Department to the White House, from human rights to counterterrorism. By extension of the internet’s global reach and of Washington’s focus on digital affairs, embassies work on similar questions. Diplomats posted abroad might engage with local officials on capacity-building, such as helping build out domestic cybercrime-fighting, or coordinate internet freedom initiatives with allies and partners in the United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, and South Africa.
Yet policy crafting and promotion also meant conversing with nations increasingly labeled adversaries. The Obama administration’s numerous technology-related dialogues with Russia, for example, “grew out of a decades-long, strategic vocabulary” the opposing countries had developed “to talk about hard things that could lead, if unaddressed, to really bad situations,” as Edelman puts it. During one visit to Moscow, Edelman recounts, a Russian defense official approached himself and his colleagues with “really, I would argue, outrageous” misunderstandings of an American policy document clenched in their fist. Having experts in the room was an opportunity for the US delegation to clarify language and address potential misconceptions.
None of these conversations were predicated on mutual trust, Edelman stresses; but the conversation with the Russian defense official is emblematic of “one of probably a thousand actions,” he says, “that helped clear the underbrush of this issue as it was developing, so that we could in turn focus on the bigger matters that could actually create dramatic and serious instability between the US and Russia.”
All told, diplomatic work on internet challenges—topics with real effects on politics, economics, and security, from online censorship to cyber-enabled trade secret theft—marked an evolving government recognition of their import. By the time Edelman was at the White House, “these issues were occupying the agenda of the [National Security Council] Deputies Committee on a very regular basis.” Far from inevitable, it was an intentional bolstering of global work on internet issues—as the internet in other spots on the globe looked increasingly different than that in the United States.
Masih Alinejad was born in 1976 in the tiny northern Iranian village of Ghomikola. She and her five siblings were all born at home, she says, because the family couldn’t afford for her mother to visit the hospital. Their house had two rooms with no indoor toilet or shower. “I didn’t know we were poor until I became a teenager and went to Babol, the nearest town, for high school,” she says.
Politically active as a teenager, Alinejad was once jailed and interrogated for producing state-critical pamphlets along with several other students. (Authorities later suspended the sentence.) When she found a calling in journalism, breaking stories for reformist newspapers on issues like regime corruption, backlash from the Iranian government soon followed. As she recounts in her memoir The Wind in My Hair, she was abroad on assignment in 2009 when it became clear she couldn’t return. Restrictions on both offline and online media were escalating, alongside citizens’ pro-democracy organization, in a manner recognizable to many around the world.
Soon after she left, she says, “my newspaper was shut down; some of my former colleagues and friends were arrested and jailed. My former publisher, and presidential candidate, [Mehdi] Karroubi is still under house arrest.” She hasn’t returned home in 11 years. Currently the host of Voice of America’s Tablet program, she splits her time between the UK and the US. She’s continued to cover Iranian politics, human rights abuses, and post-2009 election crackdowns from abroad. It was in 2014 that “I wanted to focus on something very close to my heart, which I also suspected, that would ring true with many Iranian women,” Alinejad says: compulsory hijab-wearing. The mandate is brutally enforced. So she began campaigning against the rule online.
Launching the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, Alinejad started a movement of women sharing acts of resistance against mandatory hijab laws. Despite limited access to Facebook, thousands of Iranian women have posted or sent her photographs and videos of themselves without a hijab, an act of defiance that risks their physical safety. These snapshots capture women in markets or on street corners, hijabs removed and the wind running through their hair; even in Covid-19, Iranian women continue this fight for their rights. In a recent video, a woman walks in public wearing no hijab, but a mask.
The Iranian government, however, has called Alinejad a spy and a traitor. When she first launched My Stealthy Freedom, a state propaganda outlet lied that she had been raped by three men in London. The regime’s attacks have only escalated: in 2018, her sister denounced her on state television; her brother was arrested in September of 2019 (then secretly tried and sentenced for “propaganda against the regime” and other speech activities); in August 2020, state media outlets called for Alinejad’s abduction. Tehran also launched attacks on participating women in the country: “To stop women contacting me,” Alinejad says, “the head of the Revolutionary Court in July 2019 said anyone sending me videos could receive up to 10 years in prison. At the moment, six activists from my campaign have been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison just for challenging the country’s hijab laws.”
Restrictions on the Iranian digital ecosystem date back years. At the turn of the century, many democracies were somewhat blinded with optimism about the internet’s spread—seeing its empowerment of connection and communication as a death knell to autocratic information control. Inherently “free” and “open” was a cry heard in the US and Canada, France and Germany, Israel and Australia. Then-President Bill Clinton’s 2000 declaration that controlling the web is like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall” is perhaps the most infamous articulation of this view. Not every country wore rose-colored glasses.
Mehdi Yahyanejad, a California-based Iranian expat and cofounder of nonprofit NetFreedom Pioneers, recalls online control in Iran years ago. While studying physics at Sharif University in the mid-90s, he was an early adopter of email—back in the days of basic text editors, web browsers like Netscape and Lynx, and use of the full phrase “electronic mail.” Online message-sending was then cutting-edge, the nation’s internet quite open. Iran was one of the first countries in the region to welcome the internet. Academia drove much of this adoption through a national information network, but so, too, did the Iranian public’s interest in the technology.
But the government soon “realized the internet was going to have political consequences,” he says. “That’s when the restrictions started.” By the time he received his PhD from MIT in 2004, Iran was censoring websites, bringing internet service providers into line, and declaring bans on “immoral” content—extending longstanding forms of offline control into the internet domain.
Yet as Alinejad, Yahyanejad, and other Iranians have witnessed firsthand, Tehran’s internet control tactics don’t stop at blocking websites. “There were misinformation campaigns; there were DDOS attacks on websites; there were hacking attempts on all these activists who were either inside or outside of the country—they call it ‘management’ of cyberspace,” Yahyanejad says. After he founded the website Balatarin in 2006 to enable political news-sharing and organization (he calls it a kind of Reddit for politics), the site itself became the target of such coercion. Arrests and detentions of internet users are also common practice.
In today’s environment, though, global support for internet freedom in the country is declining, as authorities lean even more heavily on the Iranian internet and cast an even greater shadow over speech and activism in the country. One of the regime’s favored projects is the National Information Network, a domestic internet separated from the global one that hosts only state-friendly content. Officials “throttle” internet traffic to encourage compliance with state internet guidelines: accessing domestic sites is cheaper and faster than accessing foreign ones, for example. This domestic net is also configured to discourage encryption. Not to mention blatantly repressive tactics like shutting down the internet amid protest and threatening and detaining those who rebut state propaganda. Sanctions from the US (which the Trump administration heightened earlier this month) even have an impact, apparently leading Apple in 2018 to prevent Iranians from accessing the iOS App Store.
Citizens feel the weight of state internet restrictions and the shadow cast over free speech on the daily. Merely pulling up YouTube and searching for videos is extraordinarily difficult in today’s Iran. Authorities technically block access to the website. To even connect to YouTube, citizens need a VPN to encrypt their traffic and try to sneak around firewalls. There are no guarantees of success, and even of a fast or sustained connection if one is made. Facebook, the very platform Alinejad used to invigorate the My Stealthy Freedom movement, is one of many other sites blocked as well.
Internet connectivity in the States is more widespread, accessible, and open. Hence why Yahyanejad’s organization, NetFreedom Pioneers, aids those living with restricted or otherwise inaccessible internet to get online content. In Iran, the group ingeniously packages archived internet content—from BBC Persian to cooking shows—into specially formatted satellite broadcasts that citizens can record on their televisions and use custom software to reformat.
Digital connection to the outside world—and to fellow citizens—remains vital to many Iranians. “Because compulsory hijab is a red line for the Islamic Republic, no publication inside the country would give me a fair hearing,” Alinejad says. Thanks to the internet, her movement has reached millions inside the country, and she has daily contact with citizens via messages on Twitter and Telegram. “In a way, I’ve never left,” she says. Citizens willing and able to bypass censors engage in this kind of communication, with risks always present and the state never far behind. Alinejad calls it a game of cat and mouse.
But heavy-handed state restrictions on the internet ecosystem—impeding daily access to YouTube and making it substantially more difficult for activists like Alinejad to widely advocate for change—are much bigger than Iran. Across the world, from Beijing to Moscow, from Ankara to Abu Dhabi, from Khartoum to Cairo, similar stories are unfolding. Governments are doing what President Clinton once proclaimed impossible: nailing Jell-O to the wall by the gallon.
There was a chill in the air the morning of November 18, 2019, as cadres of diplomats made their way to the United Nations headquarters in New York City for a General Assembly meeting and several other gatherings. One item up for consideration that day had a somewhat protracted title: “Countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes.” For those in the know about rampant online identity theft (with multiple US victims every day), a seemingly endless stream of data breaches (Yahoo, Equifax), and growing ransomware attacks on public infrastructure (as many later feared for hospitals amid Covid-19), the proposal may sound sensible. Democratic opposition would be surprising.
Yet the authors and backers of the November proposal shed light on its detractors: Russia, China, Iran; Cuba, Egypt, Kazakhstan; Nicaragua, Venezuela, North Korea, plus a dozen or so others. All countries known for a heavy state hand in the web. Searches back through the UN’s meticulously kept document archive, in fact, would unveil numerous other proposals with kindred titles—a 2015 letter, for instance, calling for an “international code of conduct for information security.” What diplomats like R. David Edelman well understand is that these words are politicized.
Western talk of “cyber terrorism” implies ruptured water supply facilities or shut-down power grids. But in, say, Russia, terrorism is frequently the fig leaf used to explain suppression of online dissent or the criminalization of vocalizing support for LGBTQ rights. Cybercrime is a dragnet for Beijing to censor state criticism and block foreign news websites; it’s cited by officials in Iran who physically threaten and punish citizens like Masih Alinejad who publish a selfie or speak their mind online.
So when voting on the resolution began, delegates from Washington, Seoul, Canberra, and other democratic capitals could have had it in the bag. Some results were indeed expected: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea all upheld their own proposal. They were joined by the likes of Cuba and Iraq, Egypt and Sudan. The US, the UK, Spain, South Korea, Poland, Japan, and many other historical defenders of internet freedom voted no.
Yet as more votes trickled in, a troubling pattern emerged. India, the most populous democracy on the planet, voted yes, along with Indonesia and South Africa. Brazil, another large democracy, abstained. Soon, the scales tipped further and further in the resolution’s favor—and with a final vote count of 88–58, in addition to 34 abstentions, the cybercrime proposal was passed.
“It was an embarrassing and stunning defeat,” says R. David Edelman. Previously, US diplomatic efforts in the United Nations had successfully blockaded the flood of repressive internet proposals authoritarians in Iran and Russia and China sent down the pipe. Having experts on the ground underpinned stalwart opposition to these lengthily titled and authoritarian initiatives. The Russian victory in New York City that late fall day—what one Kremlin envoy praised for “tackling together this serious evil” (of internet free speech)—is the cost of retreating from those institutions.
Diplomacy is increasingly sidelined in US foreign policy. The more that hard power became preferable to olive branches and that military services became preferable to diplomatic civil servants, the less the US government has funded the State Department. In other words, to paraphrase Rosa Brooks’ book, everything has become war and the military has become everything. Nonetheless, the Bush and Obama administrations made at least some commitment to the cause on the digital front—like vocally advocating for global internet freedom, so citizens can read the BBC or politically organize on community-run blogs.
Declining American investment in diplomacy began well before Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, but the current administration gave the decline new meaning. The White House continues ramping up military spending while slashing the budget for the State Department and organizations like the US Agency for International Development, which itself works on technology issues.
Exacerbating the situation is the Trump administration undermining expertise. Pushing out career civil servants. Eliminating the White House cyber coordinator position. Praising ruthless dictators. Lowering the influence of the State Department cyber office. Casting alliance-building to the side. Cutting funding for programs like the Open Technology Fund, which supports censorship circumvention tools like those Iranians use to access Facebook. It’s not trimming fat but removing vital organs. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“Fundamentally, we’ve been peeling back, layer by layer, the insulation that has been built over thirty years for a free, global internet,” says Edelman. When he worked alongside many other officials on US internet diplomacy, “it was as much the high-profile events that you read about as it was the hard, grinding, unglamorous but incredibly important work of our outrageously dedicated civil servants and foreign service officers.” Hence why “the hollowing out of the US foreign service will do untold damage to US diplomatic interests broadly, but at least as significant, if not outsized, damage to US internet policy.”
Not to mention, like colliding into an iceberg, much of the damage is below the surface. “For every one of those episodes where we see the US hamstrung and embarrassed in its current form,” Edelman says, “there must be ten or twenty episodes happening at the level of day-to-day diplomacy, because our diplomats either aren’t given license to engage or in many cases aren’t even there to do the work because their leadership has prevented them from doing the service.”
Dictators are meanwhile taking advantage. The Chinese government is dumping cash into the global capacity-building Belt and Road Initiative and other programs to promote Chinese technology and, in many cases, the authoritarian, state-controlling version of the internet preferred by officials in Beijing. As the current administration puts the US on the sidelines, even with dedicated civil servants remaining in their positions, more countries are shifting towards state-controlled internet models, from India to Vietnam. Myriad political factors are threaded through this canvas, from rising nationalism in some cases to outright authoritarian power-grabbing in others—it’s not just about the technology, nor about US efforts—but the fact of US leadership abdication remains.
“Beyond investment and everything, the credibility of the United States is so severely damaged with this President that I think that that also has to be taken into consideration,” says Marietje Schaake, who served from 2009 to 2019 as a member of European Parliament working on technology and global affairs, and is now at Stanford University.
Tides may be changing on some issues—for example, the Indian government is weighing a ban on Huawei, a decision for which the Trump administration could have only hoped on its India trip in February—but that isn’t due to any improvement in diplomatic advocacy on a free and open internet. And at home, the Trump administration has routinely attacked the press and passed highly troubling executive orders to limit social media speech, ban TikTok, and ban WeChat, the latter two apparently following an Oval Office shouting match.
“We sat across the table from Chinese authorities as they belittled US intelligence as faulty, as they tried to politicize law enforcement to kick out foreign companies, as they rallied against and tried to punish social media companies that wouldn’t promote their propaganda and for enabling critics of the regime. Does this sound familiar to you?” Edelman asks. “The Trump administration’s internet policy is right out of China’s playbook. And as a result, you couldn’t script moves more likely to play into Beijing’s hand, by creating the predicate for all of that government’s worst tendencies on internet issues.”
Domestically, Schaake emphasizes as well that it’s not just abdicating diplomacy that’s a problem—but abdicating tech industry regulation and broader support for an international rules-based order. “Democracy promotion, advancing the rule of law, defending human rights, fostering civil society, fair elections, and whatnot require a lot more than tools that are made by a few geeks in Silicon Valley and that are increasingly driven by profit objectives,” she says. “This notion that the technology itself would be democratizing” without broader political work and regulation of profit-driven internet companies “has been adhered to for too long, both in Washington and in Silicon Valley, and maybe because of the revolving doors between them.” Globally, “it’s hard to defend values and interests if you cannot articulate them in your own legislature in a model in a set of rules and regulations.”
All of which puts the US on a precipice. For the billions of people who have enjoyed a relatively free and global internet—one that serves as a powerful tool for social organization and communication, even alongside the harms that come with profit-driven development—it’s a pivotal moment, with authoritarians pouring money into promoting their internet model as the Trump administration abandons years of leadership. The true question, especially headed into November, is if the US will get back in the game before it’s too late.
The United States has its share of digital divides. Yet the daily experience of logging onto Gmail and speaking with colleagues, of posting state-critical speech on Twitter, is not something many in the world can take for granted. For all its problems—disinformation, hate speech, corporate-fueled surveillance, and more—the relatively free and global internet has enabled that communication and connection and expression. These many realities and experiences are not mutually exclusive.
“The internet is the great equalizer,” says Masih Alinejad. “The internet gives the activists a chance to fight back, to create an alternative media channel and to bypass corporate or governmental censors.” And yet, “all dictatorships, from China and Russia to the Islamic Republic, curtail their citizens’ freedoms and use technology to enforce limits.”
Escalating censorship, surveillance, and coercion of activists like Alinejad and Mehdi Yahyanejad, the passing of Russia’s UN cybercrime treaty, and enormous Chinese spending on promoting a state-controlled internet are pieces of a larger puzzle. And concurrently with rising authoritarian crackdowns on the internet—and in democracies like India, disturbing identification with those policies—US leadership on technological diplomacy continues to slip away.
“The democratic backslide that is happening globally is happening online as much as off,” says Edelman. “There is probably a narrow moment left to stop the bleeding. But I’m not sure how long the US has left to keep that train from leaving the station.”
First is reinvigorating funding and resources for the State Department to work on digital issues. The internet is transnational, and its effects on economics, politics, and security are as well—demonstrated from the Russian attack on Estonia in 2007 to the Arab Spring movements to Russia’s exploitation of an open internet ecosystem in Europe and the United States. Fewer American flag-pins in a room like the United Nations General Assembly can have real policy impacts when dictators face weaker opposition to their internet-control resolutions.
Complete reversion to the status quo of pre-Trump internet diplomacy isn’t the best way forward, either. Democracies, increasingly connected in the digital domain, have room for far greater cooperation on internet issues. “We are in a much stronger position if we’re more into alliance-building than doing things unilaterally,” Chris Painter says. “You don’t need the President’s attention all the time, to be sure,” he adds, recalling his time at the State Department, “but it has to be one of the priorities for any administration to make progress.” India, Australia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and countries across the European Union are just some with whom the United States might diplomatically engage on promoting and protecting a democratic internet.
And the need for domestic reforms, too, is enormous. Privacy advocates have for years urged Congress to pass a strong federal privacy law to rein in corporate data collection. Export controls are another area in need of work, as US companies are continually caught selling internet surveillance technologies to human rights abusers—the kinds Russia and China use to capture online dissidents, or the kinds used by Philippines dictator Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal police force. Copying the China playbook, as R. David Edelman referenced, is not a democratic approach; the United States must promote internet freedom at home, too.
“There is a clear mismatch in the hopes of what for-profit companies could bring in terms of human rights and democracy, and the reality,” Marietje Schaake says, “and I think that anyone should not be surprised that if you optimize your design, your governance, your products, your data flows for profit, that they’re not going to be optimized for human rights, democracy, respect for minorities, protecting people from being tracked and traced after they’ve exercised their freedom of expression online.”
Schaake offers that “we don’t just see an authoritarian model and a democratic model” for the internet, “but we basically see a privatized governance model in much of the democratic world when it comes to technology.” Building a democratic model for technology, she says, including on the internet freedom issues that impact billions of internet users every day, is part of the solution to an underregulated space and growing internet divergence among democracies.
Ultimately, as Mehdi Yahyanejad put it with respect to US government funding for censorship circumvention tools, “politicians who make such decisions need to be convinced this is an important issue.” American investment in the people and the resources to protect and promote freedom on the global internet has yielded enormous benefits. Fighting an increasingly authoritarian-looking global internet thus comes back to political will—and the United States government’s belief that a global democratic internet, and the diplomats required to advocate for it, are a true foreign policy priority.
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