A Bretton Woods for the digital age can save the open internet

Even in many open democratic societies, there is talk of “data sovereignty” and plans to impose “data localisation”, requiring citizens’ data to be stored domestically and placing significant limits on the flow of data across borders. In some cases, legitimate concerns about the spread of harmful content online have led, by accident or design, to laws being proposed that would criminalise vast swaths of loosely defined content that, while unpleasant or undesirable, would otherwise be considered legal, free speech.

Magical quality

This isn’t just a philosophical choice, it’s economic. The open internet has transformed the global economy, fuelling growth and improving living standards. In 2019, analysis by Bain & Company, Google and Temasek found that south-east Asia’s digital economy was worth more than $US100 billion a year. Before COVID-19 hit, it was on track to treble to over $US300 billion by 2025.

From big corporations to coffee shops, bookshops and restaurants, reaching customers online is now central to how we do business – especially during the pandemic when digital tools have been a lifeline for businesses everywhere, especially small and medium-sized ones.

The open, accessible and – crucially – global internet makes us greater than the sum of our parts. The ability to connect across borders, to buy and sell, collaborate and share, is the magical quality that makes the digital economy the incredible growth engine it has become.

A lurch towards digital protectionism could be devastating for the economic recovery around the world. For example, in Europe, where court rulings have thrown data transfers between the EU and US into doubt, a recent report by Digital Europe warned that the EU could stand to lose €1.3 trillion ($200 trillion) in extra growth by 2030, equivalent to the size of the Spanish economy.

To create a bulwark against the spread of the authoritarian internet, democratic governments need to work together. But how?

New global governance philosophy

In 1944, with the end of World War II in sight, the Allies gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. After a month of intense negotiations, an agreement was struck that became the foundation of global stability in the postwar era.

Bretton Woods led to a new global governance philosophy based on the idea that if nations large and small ceded a degree of their sovereignty to abide by the same global rules, it would prevent a return to the protectionism and economic catastrophes of the 1920s and ’30s. Global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created to promote economic growth and political stability for all.

We need that same scale of ambition to unite the democratic world today. The internet has been one of the great collective achievements of humanity. It is time for its Bretton Woods moment.

A shared sense of purpose based on common values such as free expression, transparency and accountability could be the foundation for a global consensus that governments, industry and civil society can organise around.

This shared endeavour can breathe new life into international institutions, or even lead to the creation of new ones. It can bring a unified voice to the regional and international economic organisations that have a role in the governance of the internet, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Group of 20, Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Bodies such as the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum or the not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers provide forums for the details to be hammered out.

Working on this level will help maintain the common technical infrastructure the open internet demands globally, and guide its expansion to the 3 billion people now unconnected. It also makes possible the strategic infrastructure spending in developing countries necessary to counter the spread of digital authoritarianism.

We need a Bretton Woods for the digital age. The Sydney Dialogue could provide the impetus. It will take strong leadership from the world’s leading techno-democracies: Australia, the US, EU, India, Japan, New Zealand and others. As leaders gather this week, they can begin building a new global consensus that keeps the internet open, accessible and safe for generations to come.

Nick Clegg is VP of Global Affairs & Communications at Meta. He will be appearing at the Sydney Dialogue on Friday.

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