Blair Institute Warns of Stark and Urgent Risks Facing the Internet

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Tony Blair
Executive Chairman of the Institute for Global Change 

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has issued a report in which it warns of the stark and urgent risks presented by the challenges facing the Internet, arising from the increasing restrictions on Internet freedoms globally and governments competing to assert sovereign control over the Internet.

The Institute warns that without an effective response to the risks presented by the challenges, electronics shortages will continue, small businesses and high-growth start-ups would be unable to compete in international markets, and 3.7 billion people not yet connected may not gain access to the full benefits and freedoms of the global internet.

In the 96-page report titled “The Open Internet on the Brink:  Recommendations for a Future Model”, the Institute proposes a new model of “internet internationalism”, which can be constructed around a framework of trade-offs and interests in internet geopolitics, a range of potential futures, and the policy levers that would be needed to shape these futures.

It is inviting all states to visualise the entire ecosystem and coordinate across a range of issues, rather than narrowly competing on a series of individual points, saying that this will allow for broader, interest-based coalitions to emerge.

According to the Institute, this approach will also provide the room for nations to be flexible on some areas such as semiconductor supply chain security, regulatory harmonisation or internet infrastructure projects in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), rather than simply picking between ideologies.

Stressing that the case for internet internationalism is compelling, the Institute argues that creating a new normative framework that draws together a wider group of nations and actors in their formulation and use, will create the foundations of cooperation for internet internationalism in practice.

According to it, similar to the norms underpinning non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the Group of Governmental Experts’ (GGE) norms for uses of cyberspace, cooperation should be based on a commitment to upholding key norms and rules of law that are integral to harnessing the opportunity and prosperity of the global and interoperable internet.

The Institute advocates that these norms should include commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions on protections for submarine cables; commitments for transparency on uses of technologies; principles of international humanitarian and human rights law; the preservation of the multi-stakeholder model for technical standards development; and representation of, at the minimum, G7 countries in all standards fora to prevent authoritarian “forum shopping” and misuse of standards bodies.

It said: “Putting these norms together with the range of possible policy levers, we can identify four key shifts necessary to promote a progressive future for the internet at the national, regional and international levels:  A new progressive alliance that supports the resilience of internet networks, infrastructure and supply chains and works towards regulatory harmonization; A new geopolitical settlement with the global technology industry;  Upgraded, nation-level foreign-policy approaches, integrating technology and the internet into traditional diplomacy; A new ecosystem oversight body that reports on the health of global networks and internet openness, acting as an early-warning system to provide the objective, technical basis on which to measure progress.”

The Institute noted that although the internet ecosystem is at a critical tipping point, “the perception that the challenges it faces are so great they cannot be resolved could condemn it to a future that we must all seek to avoid.”

It contended that the current approaches, ranging from outright avoidance to extreme competition on the fundamental protocols on which the internet is built, will ultimately lead to the unravelling of the internet as we know it.

According to the Institute, “The mindset and practical steps of internet internationalism can help tilt the future towards a more progressive, sustainable and globally beneficial internet. This new model provides the framework to step back and visualise areas of common interests, to harness the benefits of mutual cooperation, to maximise the value in stepping away from polarised narratives and to build an objective knowledge base for effective decision-making.”

It stressed that internet internationalism “will provide the guidance for leaders to develop national, regional and international capacity to align and engage with critical stakeholders in order to preserve and enhance the global, open and interoperable internet – which underpins immense social and economic prosperity for all.”