Digital city with connection network showing internet freedom

“Declaration for the Future of the Internet” Addresses Internet Freedom Amidst Decade-long Global Decline in Free Speech and Accessibility

A new international statement of principles and intent called the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” has now been signed by over 60 countries, including the United States. While more of a general pledge than any sort of binding terms, the declaration addresses a long-term decline in internet freedom around the world and the concentration of personal data on massive centralized platforms.

The declaration calls for various human rights protections, Net Neutrality as a global principle, and cooperation in curtailing cyber crime among other initiatives. One item that might raise some eyebrows is the inclusion of the “fight against global climate change” as a central principle, though the document later appears to indicate that this means a focus on reducing the carbon footprint of the technologies that make up the internet.

Over 60 countries sign on to internet freedom pledge

The declaration primarily addresses the fact that internet freedom has decreased around the world over the past decade, primarily due to authoritarian governments implementing censorship and surveillance measures. Big tech platforms are also called on the carpet, however, for failing to safeguard and respect personal information adequately and for also failing to police their own systems.

Another issue that is addressed is a failure in many parts of the world to build out affordable high-speed internet. While internet access is thought of as being widely available even in developing countries, cost and speed are still serious issues in many places. The cost of internet access does not always line up with the local cost of living or average income; this is perhaps best illustrated by war-torn Yemen, where the average salary is about $88 per month yet broadband internet access costs over $2,400 per month on average. Other regions that struggle with internet affordability include central Africa, the Caribbean and some of the smaller Pacific islands.

The project stems from a Biden administration initiative introduced in January 2022, the Alliance for the Future of the Internet. This was a proposal of a more formal agreement between select democracies to address the preservation of an open and free internet in the face of a rise of authoritarian restrictions. This idea appears to have been scrapped over general confusion over (and sometimes mistrust of) the White House’s intent with the plan, and specifically exclusionary language that appeared to target companies in China and Russia (such as Huawei) for elimination from internet infrastructure.

The new approach instead encourages cooperation between the signees through the United Nations, the G7, ICANN and similar existing international organizations. Much of Europe (all of the EU) and Latin America has signed on to the internet freedom proposal, in addition to a smattering of other countries around the world; unsurprisingly Russia, China and North Korea have not shown any interest. The internet freedom declaration covers a lot of the same ground that the earlier “Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles” issued by the EU covered.

The declaration cites a study by Freedom House showing that internet freedom declined globally for the 11th year in a row in 2021, with a spike in arrests for speech and government-ordered internet shutdowns.

Declaration responds to moves by authoritarian governments

The internet freedom declaration uses very general terms to describe the defense of human rights online, but did call out some specific tools that have been used by various governments and platforms: software for unlawful surveillance, such as NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, and tools of “pre-crime” or “domestic social control” such as social credit scores (as have been partially implemented in China).

In terms of internet accessibility and affordability, the measures it calls for are digital literacy and related skills training and a greater diversity of content. The “affordable” element is not really addressed in this particular declaration.

The internet freedom proposal also calls for signees to refrain from government-imposed internet shutdowns, apply Net Neutrality principles, and improve in sharing of cyber threats. Cyber crime was also given its own section, but again the terms were mostly very general here except for a call to “use trustworthy network infrastructure and services suppliers.” This is also the section that addresses the technology aspect of the battle against global warming, calling for reduction of the “environmental footprint” of digital technologies. While nothing specific is named, this has been a primary line of criticism of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that use substantial amounts of energy to function. The crypto market is in the midst of an experiment with a shift to new “proof of stake” systems of validating transactions that use much less energy, but are currently having some uptake issues due to a number of security concerns.

Jason Sabin, CTO at DigiCert, sees this as a trend that is not just moving through world governments but that private companies will be expected to embrace as well: “Over the last decade, the need for digital trust has exploded.  Digital interactions have now infiltrated all corners of our personal and professional lives as a result of IT trends such as digital transformation and convergence of IT and operational technology. Digital trust is now imperative and companies need to make it a strategic focus to prevent and protect against cybersecurity threats. It is a necessary component of digital transformation, enabling companies to transfer critical processes online and create new forms of inter-organization connection. And it is essential to our connected future. Companies that are strategically investing in digital trust are positioning themselves now as stewards of a secure, connected world.”