Intelbrief / IntelBrief: National Internets: The Changing Internet Landscape and Foreign Policy
AP Photo/Sang Tan
Initially conceived as an open medium meant to maximize information access and synchronization of its diffuse users, the internet has evolved along a very different trajectory to that envisioned by its early adopters. At first, the global network was designed as a cosmopolitan platform to unite its users and promote common understanding. Especially in the U.S., it was vaunted as a democratizing force that would help topple authoritarian regimes overseas. The advent of Web 2.0 in the 2000’s enabled unprecedented opportunities for users to share information through social media. These platforms did come to threaten repressive governments, as exemplified by the role played by social media in spurring the protest movements that gave birth to the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s ability to marshal support in the online space in its fight against Russian occupation. In response, authoritarian states like Iran and Russia moved to limit access and censor dissident content, while China and North Korea cut their citizens off entirely, fragmenting the once global internet into a patchwork. Even in democratic states, like the U.S., internet freedom has declined in recent years as authorities impose regulations intended to disrupt extremist online activity. Although the internet is now central to billions of people’s lives, the nature of that role varies greatly depending on the local laws where the user logs on. This has profound implications for how different domestic audiences perceive and understand world events.
Cuba became the latest country to disrupt citizens’ internet access in response to protests when it temporarily cut access last week. In an increasingly segmented digital space, states have begun using internet outages as a standard play in suppressing domestic unrest. China is the most notorious culprit and aggressive proponent of this approach. Although almost every state restricts the availability of some content on the internet, Germany for example, has strict laws against digital dissemination of neo-Nazi material; China’s Great Firewall is the most sophisticated system for controlling citizens’ access to information. China’s comparative advantage in this area partly stems from the scale of its domestic market and the government’s preferential treatment of Chinese firms. By tightly controlling cross-border data flows, Beijing protects its own citizens’ data from adversaries and maintains the ability to set favorable narratives surrounding domestic and international events. The ability to amplify government disinformation efforts and isolate itself from the global internet helped Beijing contain and extinguish the protests in Hong Kong in 2019-2020. India and Iran have both triggered internet outages in response to protests in recent years, and since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russia has reinvigorated its efforts to partition its segment of the internet, known as Runet.
The effectiveness of internet surveillance and censorship tools has not gone unnoticed. Many authoritarian regimes are now working to model their censorship and surveillance infrastructure after China’s, and in some cases, China directly exports this technology to sympathetic governments. This is particularly true in Central Asia, where China pursues counterterrorism cooperation efforts to protect its western border and economic, energy, and security interests in the region. As part of President Xi Jinping’s drive to shift China away from manufacturing and exports to an information and technology-based economy, the government has poured money into the development of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, big-data analysis, and adoption of the Internet of Things. These technologies can all be used to improve internet surveillance. The U.S. and European countries monitor online activity for law enforcement and counterterrorism purposes as well, however, collection is controlled by law in an effort to ensure civil liberties are not violated. Proponents of internet surveillance cite it as a valuable asset in countering extremism and criminal activity. Others, however, remain concerned that civil liberties are routinely violated and that U.S. tech companies compulsively collect and fail to secure their personal data. Many countries struggle to strike the proper balance.
The internet has provided new means for states to monitor their populations but also to surveil one another’s activities. The 2013 disclosure of classified information by Edward Snowden revealed the surprising lengths the U.S. government had gone to in order to spy on its allies. This breach of trust took years to mend and prompted the European Union to pass internet privacy laws that restrict what data U.S. tech giants can collect on EU citizens. The EU is now a global leader in data privacy standards and has compelled U.S. tech companies to change their data collection and storage policies. This past March, the U.S. and EU agreed ‘in principle’ to a cross border data-sharing framework. This agreement has temporarily dispelled fears among analysts that the trans-Atlantic rift could further fragment the global internet. This tentative agreement highlights the value states now place on data as a geopolitical currency.