On April 28, 2022, 60 international partners including the European Commission and the United States issued a co-signed Declaration for the Future of the Internet. In publishing this agreement, the nations show their active support for an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet for everyone and commit to protecting and respecting human rights and privacy online and across the digital ecosystem.
The announcement recognizes that online networking is in a state of distress, with impacts on users, such as a lack of online privacy, censorship by authoritarian regimes and online platforms, criminal activity including state-sponsored disinformation and ransomware, and violations of human rights topics of concern in the technology industry. As a result, the promise of the open, decentralized internet has not been fulfilled, concentrating economic power in the hands of entities that possess vast troves of personal data, and online platforms have spread content that threatens the safety of others and results in harmful political radicalization.
While some technology companies and political entities have attempted to deal with these issues, they have, in large part, been piecemeal. The commitments of 60 international partners, including the United States, which has lagged behind Europe in internet regulation, hold promise and potential for the future. The signatories share a vision for the future of the internet that defends human rights for all and promotes equitable economic prosperity, bringing together governments, civil society, the private sector, and the academic community.
The full text of the declaration can be found here. (linkto: https://iapp.org/media/pdf/publications/Declaration-for-the-Future-for-the-Internet_Launch-Event-Signing-Version_FINAL.pdf)
Signatories commit to both principles supporting a free, open internet as well as certain affirmative actions. The principles and affirmative actions include:
• Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rule of law and transparency
• Promotion of online safety, especially for women and children
• Safe and equitable access to the internet
The 60 participating partners agree that technology should operate in an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure systems that:
• enables trustworthy, free, and fair commerce
• avoids unfair discrimination between individual users
• ensures effective choice for individual users
• fosters fair competition and encourage innovation
• promotes and protects human rights
While the 'Declaration for the Future of the Internet' eloquently expresses its vision for a modern-day internet, it notably does not provide concrete steps for signatories to take or enforce their vision. The partners believe the internet should be a decentralized network of networks with multiple stakeholders, but there are few mechanisms to be used by either governments or other parties, such as academics, consumers, or private sector entities to demand compliance with its goals.
Let’s face it: the internet is broken. Many tech companies have violated users’ privacy or attempted to suppress fair competition. Governments have caused internet blackouts, spread misinformation, and conducted cyber-attacks and espionage (like in the case of Pegasus, the highly invasive system targeting journalists).
The pandemic brought to the forefront the need for all humans to be connected and support one another through good or bad times—and the internet is one such technology that must be protected. Economies have survived through the pandemic by largely transitioning to the digital realm. But such connectivity cannot come by excluding some from the benefits of the internet nor at the price of loss of personal privacy or basic human right
The EU, US, and other democratic governments have realized the harmful effect of the internet when the rules of “fair play” are absent and issued this declaration to create a multi-stakeholder governance system and code of practice to ensure that the internet is trustworthy, open, inclusive, and fair—not a tool for authoritarian regimes. It is time, as World Economic Forum requested in Davos, to use technologies for the benefit of all, where societal impacts are included in calculations of commerce and profit. Privacy laws can and should play a major role in supporting the aspirations of this declaration and initiative, and tech companies must exhibit respect for privacy, economic sustainability, and human rights values to participate.