LONDON — Paul Fehlinger isn’t a household name like Mark Zuckerberg. But the Paris-based policy wonk has an ambition that’s just as big and far-reaching as the Facebook chief’s digital empire: fixing the internet.
With billions of people surfing the web each day — and tech giants like Google and Facebook now the among the world’s most valuable and well-known companies — it’s easy to think that nothing needs repairing.
But over the past year, governments from Berlin to Washington to Beijing have pushed aggressively to reaffirm their dominance over the borderless internet. Think Germany’s new hate speech laws with fines of up to €50 million; the U.S. repeal of its net neutrality laws; or China’s ever-expanding “Great Firewall.”
That digital power grab is increasingly dividing the digital world along national or regional borders.
In a sense, the world wide web as we know it is over. And in its place is something altogether different: a Balkanized “splinternet.”
“We need a new generation of laws to govern a new generation of tech” — Brad Smith, chief legal officer at Microsoft
That’s where Fehlinger — co-founder of the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network, a global group of governments, companies and other nonprofit organizations that wants to glue these diverging online worlds back together — comes in.
His organization has gathered more than 200 global lawmakers, corporate executives and members of civil society for a three-day conference in Ottawa, Canada this week to figure out how to set global rules for the internet.
“It’s one of the most difficult global governance challenges of the 21st century,” said Fehlinger, who has invited lawmakers from Europe, the United States and elsewhere as well as senior officials from Google, Amazon and Facebook.
“There’s a paradigm shift going on. Governments are moving from a position of non-interference to a realization that if we want to keep a cross-border internet going, then we need a new system of governance,” he added.
Data servers in Pantin, a suburb north of Paris in the Seine-Saint-Denis department | Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images
Agreeing on a global rulebook for the web is easier said than done.
From Brazil to Indonesia to France, states are staking out huge swaths of the digital world. The EU is doing its share by exporting tough privacy rules globally. Authoritarian regimes like Turkey and Russia are doing theirs by censoring people’s activities on social networks. Meanwhile, emerging economies like Kenya are struggling to decide whether to follow an open or closed internet rulebook just as many of their citizens join the digital era.
For those gathering in Ottawa, the trend of increasing state intervention poses a maddeningly tough question: How can national governments apply their own legitimate national (yet often conflicting) rules to the web without undermining the inherent global nature of the internet?
“It’s incredibly difficult,” said Oscar Gonzalez, undersecretary of regulation at Argentina’s modernization ministry. “The internet has challenged the institutions that we have in place. The issue of countries’ sovereign jurisdiction is at stake.”
Gonzalez and the rest of the attendees at the Ottawa conference know that devising a U.N.-style governance system for the internet age will be not be easy, especially given that no one from China, the world’s largest digital economy, will participate.
So they are limiting their discussions in scope.
Much of the conference this week will focus on hammering out a global deal on how to regulate online content like YouTube videos, Facebook posts and Twitter messages. That debate has become increasingly politicized because of the alleged Russian interference in many elections worldwide over the last 18 months, as well as the rise of extremist and other hate speech on many social networks.
“There’s no global consensus about the best way to enable the governance of content online” — Emma Llansó, director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology
Several participants attending the Ottawa meeting said they did not aim to create a one-size-fits-all approach to online content, which would be impossible because of countries’ diverging stances on free speech and what constitutes illegal material.
Instead, they want to figure out how national governments can extend their own laws over such digital material within their borders, while respecting the rights of other countries that hold different views on regulating the same content.
That may sound like an unwieldy fudge. But it would be a step forward from the current global online land grab where countries are racing to apply their own rules worldwide before other nations’ politicians can beat them to it.
“I don’t know if we’ll see a new treaty in the next three to five years to solve all these problems at once,” said Emma Llansó, director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a think tank in Washington. “There’s no global consensus about the best way to enable the governance of content online.”
Another major challenge for Ottawa: how to keep digital data flowing worldwide at a time when Europe and the United States — the Western world’s two largest markets — remain at loggerheads over who can collect, manage and use such information (everything from search queries to corporate payroll information).
Commuters consult their electronic connected devices inside a train coach in the Moscow metro | Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP via Getty Images
This isn’t just a question of making sure online videos of cute cats aren’t turned off overnight. The digital economy now represents hundreds of billions of euros of annual global trade. And if countries start putting up digital barriers, it’s likely — if not inevitable — that such trade will take a hit.
To keep global data flows moving, it’s essential to find a balance between national law enforcements’ need to access such information to thwart crimes and privacy campaigners’ demands that people’s information is not misused, either by government agencies or private companies. That debate has even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where judges will hold a hearing Tuesday to determine if the U.S. government has the right to unilaterally obtain online information held overseas.
“We need a new generation of laws to govern a new generation of tech,” said Brad Smith, chief legal officer at Microsoft, which is embroiled in the Supreme Court case. “The only way to reconcile the tension between national sovereignty issues is to move faster towards international regulation.”
That last point — moving faster toward international regulation — cannot be understated.
The Ottawa conference will certainly move the ball forward on creating global digital rules. Fehlinger and his organization are planning another meeting next year in Berlin.
But it’s painstaking work. And these negotiations, even if they are successful, will likely take years.
With the current fracturing of the internet into Balkanized regional fiefdoms, any effort to bring the digital world back together should be welcomed. Let’s just hope it’s not already too late.
Mark Scott is chief technology correspondent at POLITICO.