In the summer of 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning countries that intentionally disrupt their citizens’ access to the Internet. The resolution was a show of international solidarity on something everyone can agree is vital to the future of any nation.
The Internet changes lives. As of 2016, the Internet economy had become the equivalent of the fifth largest economy in the world. But while people in the rest of the world have to worry about migration and citizenship to join other economies, the Internet is like a prosperous country to which anyone can have access—if they can get online. Joshua Meltzer, of the Brookings Institution, wrote in a 2015 analysis of Internet openness that “the Internet has provided an opportunity for people to connect and share ideas in a space and time essentially free of transaction costs.” As a result, the World Bank has estimated that every 10 percent more broadband Internet in a given country, its economy grows by another 1.3 percent. There’s a clear link that most of the world recognizes between access to the Internet and a better economic life.
But not everyone wants their citizens to have the same free and open Internet we enjoy here in the United States. At the UN, the negotiations over even this non-binding resolution about Internet access revealed deep differences among the nations who voted. While a majority vote of nations passed the measure, a notable minority tried to weaken the resolution with amendments. Russia and China asked to remove language calling for a “human rights based approach” and freedom of expression, and not just other authoritarian regimes joined the call, like Saudi Arabia, but also a handful of highly influential democracies, including India and South Africa. Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, which advocates for free and open Internet access around the world, said in a statement that his organization was disappointed that these democracies “voted in favour of these hostile amendments to weaken protections for freedom of expression online,” pointing out that “basic human rights principles are being disregarded to impose greater controls over the information we see and share online.”
Most nations have always been able to agree on a few basic standards of civilization. Access to health care. Clean water. Safety from violence. But the fact that unfettered access to the Internet is a controversial idea reveals that there is a worldwide battle brewing over what the Internet is for.
There are some countries, like North Korea, that simply ban private Internet access outright. Other nations, like Cuba, only allow the Internet at approved access points. China heavily censors the Web, rerouting searches about antigovernment protests to news items that say positive things about the Communist party. Russia maintains a central blacklist of IP addresses, URLs, and domains it blocks. In 2012, when the practice began, the censorship was on the basis of illegal activity like promoting drug use or child pornography. But it has since come to include materials that are considered extremist.
We’ve now seen that Russia, China, and other nations maintain organized ranks of highly effective hackers, who seek to penetrate connected systems in the rest of the world, disrupting bank accounts, credit processors, and military and civilian infrastructure. And now we’re discovering that those countries also seek to destabilize democracies elsewhere in the world on an informal basis by using social media to encourage division and political disagreement. In a country like Russia, the Internet isn’t just for commerce and self-improvement. It’s also an intercontinental weapon.
Meanwhile, Internet use is growing steadily. In the year 2000 there were an estimated 738 million people online. Today that number is over three and a half billion. That’s more than half the planet. The question now is whether that half of the planet is going to be allowed to connect with one another as freely and openly as the Internet was built to facilitate. And if only some nations use it to improve life for its citizens, while other nations treat it as a way of disrupting life elsewhere on the planet, have we built a forum for opportunity, or a battleground?