We have recently seen a growing trend toward protectionism by nations struggling to adapt to a twenty-first century of unprecedented interconnectedness. The Trump Administration’s “America First” doctrine, escalating trade wars, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, are opposing forces to the globalization trends of the last 50 years. The Internet, as we know it, has only known an increasingly globalized world, while also playing a key role in that globalization. The Internet relies on cooperation and adherence to open standards and has not faced protectionist forces this strong in its modern existence. As global tensions continue to escalate, the Internet may find itself used as a weapon, something we are already starting to see happen, by nations attempting to exert their influence and enforce greater internal control over digital commerce and communication.

Nations must recognize the threat of escalation beyond the point of no return and take steps to ensure that the interconnectivity of the open Internet remains intact long-term. This will prevent a “cyber dark age” in which governments implement national Internet protocols and stop the free flow of data across borders.


The Current Threat

The Internet, born from the need to share research between universities and government facilities for defense initiatives, was built layer-by-layer over years of collaboration across nations. This interconnectedness could be splintered and dissolved if that desire for collaboration ceases.

Nationalist and protective measures in the physical world are starting to spill over into the digital. Certain world leaders have used legislative actions and technology to restrict the flow of Internet traffic in and out of their countries for decades. More recently, there are signs nations are attempting to curb the influence of their peers by enacting legislation that restricts access to data in other countries, and that prevents foreign software and hardware providers from operating within their borders.

If current escalation trends continue, governments could implement measures that destabilize the open Internet as we know it by restricting or closing the digital pipelines into and out of their countries. Restrictive measures that governments could take include:

  • Legislating strict data controls that prevent organizations from sharing or transferring data across borders, which would restrict the free flow of data altogether, as opposed to legislating data privacy laws designed to protect individuals;
  • Legislating and implementing network traffic controls to prevent applications and services from operating across borders, which would prevent social networks from operating globally and news services from publishing online media in other countries;
  • Nationalizing Internet service providers, effectively putting the Internet’s infrastructure in the control of government agencies to be restricted in the name of national security; and
  • Legislating and implementing new standards and protocols such that data can no longer effectively travel across borders, which would completely undo the interconnectedness that broad adoption of common protocols provided.

The first two scenarios would create a multi-layered iron curtain that prevents the day-to-day interaction between countries not seen since the 1980s. International commerce and social media would cease to function as they do today.

The third and fourth scenarios would bring about a cyber dark age where we could no longer rely on the integrity or availability of information spreading around the world. Routers would no longer operate as we expect, and international data flows would be funneled through tightly controlled gateways. In a moment when Internet of things (IoT) devices are increasing at an exponential rate, and where further efforts are needed to develop true standards and protocols, these protectionist measures would further fracture the already chaotic and unsecure environment within which many of these devices operate.

Users would not be able to interact with those in other countries. Further, nations would compete to expand their influence by implementing national protocols and infrastructure in developing nations in a new digital arms race. Ultimately, we could lose our fundamental understanding of one another, which has historically led to hostilities, hatred, and war.


The Path to De-Escalation

Organizations across the globe are already working to prevent these worst-case scenarios and reduce the weaponization of the Internet. The Contract for the Web, a 2019 initiative by the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF), sets out principles that address issues of political manipulation and internet privacy. The UN General Assembly’s resolution “Advancing responsible State behavior in cyberspace in the context of international security,” which was distributed in 2019, attempted to outline what is and is not acceptable in cyberspace and define consequences. The most malignant perpetrators of good Internet standards have resisted signing onto these agreements.

In the modern era, multilateralism and open communication have succeeded in furthering democratic ideals and de-escalating global tensions: the Truman Doctrine set the stage for isolating Soviet communism through the support of pro-democratic governments; a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin was implemented to prevent a second Cuban Missile Crisis; and the START and New START treaties sought to de-escalate nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The global community should pull all of these levers while the appetite for de-escalation remains strong. Multi-lateral digital infrastructure treaties that formalize open standards, data protection, and net neutrality should be adopted. This serves as an opportunity for the international community to commit to IoT standards, security, and interoperability to ensure that the emerging technology remains beneficial to all societies as the use cases continue to mature. These digital infrastructure agreements should also create enforcement mechanisms that disincentivize misuse and isolate those nations that do not sign on or fail to abide by the agreed-upon standards by restricting partnerships, transactions, and data sharing with organizations operating in countries found to be in noncompliance with the adopted standards.

By rallying a critical mass of nations around such a treaty and formalizing the commitment to maintain certain standards, the open operation of the Internet can flourish while gaining needed protection. Now is the time for the global community to act before it reaches a point of no return.