Aug 11, 2020 - Technology

Nationalism and authoritarianism threaten the internet's universality

an illustration of flags on an internet symbol.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Governments around the world, prompted by nationalism, authoritarianism and other forces, are threatening the notion of a single, universal computer network — long the defining characteristic of the internet.

The big picture: Most countries want the internet and the economic and cultural benefits that come with it. Increasingly, though, they want to add their own rules — the internet with an asterisk, if you will. The question is just how many local rules you can make before the network's universality disappears.

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Meanwhile: It's not just efforts to control what's shown on the web, but also the infrastructure and networks that power the internet, as well as where data is stored.

The U.S. and Europe are at odds over where European users' data is stored.

  • Europe's highest court last month struck down Privacy Shield, the agreement that has allowed most data transfers between the EU and the U.S. to proceed.
  • The move signals that the EU's top judges don’t have faith that Europeans' data will be protected once it crosses the Atlantic.
  • The Commerce Department said Monday it's in talks with the European Commission on potentially crafting a replacement agreement.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, proposed what it called the "Clean Network" initiative to blunt China's expanding influence in networks and digital markets around the world.

  • The push includes plans to shove even more Chinese apps out of the U.S. and keep Chinese devices from running American-made apps, as well as a call for other countries not to use China's undersea cables that connect countries to each other and the global internet.

More governments are demanding that large online platforms store their data locally, where those governments can try to access it.

  • Turkey's recent moves also included a requirement that large online platforms store their data inside the country.
  • Civil rights groups and tech companies, including Facebook, have warned that data localization rules can allow authoritarian regimes to misuse citizens' digital information, in addition to making it harder for global tech companies to conduct business.

Yes, but: China erected its "Great Firewall" some time ago, and while that's harmed freedom of information inside its borders in countless ways, it hasn't meant the end of the internet for the rest of the world.

  • Europe, meanwhile, has privacy-focused rules like its "right to be forgotten" that has forced certain information off the web in that region without fundamentally cutting Europe off from the internet.

The bottom line: We still don't know exactly how much local control the internet can handle without splitting into a variety of smaller, regional networks. By the time we learn the answer that question, it will probably be too late to put the network back together.

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