Fragmented internet is ‘detrimental to prosperity and innovation’

Brandon How

Australia, along with the European Commission and 58 other countries have signed a United States-led collective commitment to support an open internet that promotes democracy, the rule or law, and human rights.

Launched on April 28 between the United States and 60 partners, the declaration calls for the ‘promise of the internet’ as an open communication platform for everyone to be reclaimed against a rising tide of digital authoritarianism over the last two decades.

Cyber security industry policy
The United States-led Declaration was signed by Australia and 59 other governments

Head of Cyber Capacity Building, International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Security Policy Institute Bart Hogeveen said that the declaration acknowledges that “fragmentation of the global internet is detrimental to our prosperity, innovation power, and people-to-people interaction”. It also sends a political-diplomatic signal to those who have yet to subscribe to the declaration.

“There won’t be direct and immediate implications for Australia, but it should be read in the context of a broader effort of Western, liberal-democratic societies, including Australia, to retake initiative in shaping international discourse on digital issues, norms of behaviour in cyberspace and (technical) internet standards,” Mr Hogeveen said.

“There is a feeling that leadership is being lost to China and others autocratic powers, and that democratic values, universal rights and fundamental freedoms are insufficiently enshrined in current policy, norms and standards-setting initiatives.”

It was also interesting to Mr Hogeveen that the declaration supported a multi-stakeholder system for internet governance, yet no non-governmental entities are a part of the initiative.

Australia’s own 2017 International Cyber Engagement Strategy, similarly called for “an open, free and secure cyberspace”. Further, it committed Australia to advocating for a “multi-stakeholder Internet governance and respect for human rights and democratic principles online”.

The strategy was later replaced by the International Cyber and Critical Technology Engagement Strategy in April 2021.

Mr Hogeveen also highlighted that following the release of the international cyber engagement strategy Australia has strengthened ties in the sector with countries that have yet to sign up to the declaration.

“Australia has made an effort to strengthen cyber and tech ties with Southeast Asian partners, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia, as well as India. These countries are missing from the list of signatories, so it can and should be expected from the Australian government to bring this up in bilateral and ASEAN talks,” Mr Hogeveen said.

“That may involve uncomfortable conversations about issues, as per the Declaration, of freedom of expression, independent news, interference with elections, human rights online. India, for instance, is one of the countries with a poor track record when it comes to imposing internet shutdowns.”

However, Mr Hogeveen also noted that signatory countries may be accused of applying a double standard.

“In the Global South there is a recurring current concern about offensive cyber operations, and the ability and willingness of countries like US, UK and Australia to conduct these kind of operations; concerns with Israel’s cybersecurity industry and their provision of spyware tool to autocratic regimes; exploitation of big data as well as our own struggles with disinformation and online influence operations by foreign states and the role of social media platforms,” Mr Hogeveen said.

The release of this declaration is a watered down version of the United States’ proposal to form an ‘Alliance for the Future of the Internet’, released as a draft last year.

The declaration’s commitments are categorised under five overarching principles:

  • Protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people
  • Promote a global Internet that advances the free flow of information
  • Advance inclusive and affordable connectivity so that all people can benefit from the digital economy
  • Promote trust in the global digital ecosystem, including through protection of privacy
  • Protect and strengthen the multi-stakeholder approach to governance that keeps the Internet running for the benefit of all

Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly attributed comment to Director of the International Cyber Policy Centre at ASPI Fergus Hanson. Attribution has been correctly amended to Head of Cyber Capacity Building, International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Security Policy Institute Bart Hogeveen.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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