Even in many open democratic societies, there is talk of “data sovereignty” and moves to clamp down on U.S. companies and the sharing of data. In Europe, regulators and courts have thrown into doubt the free flow of data between the European Union and the United States. Many other countries are actively working on plans to impose “data localization,” requiring citizens’ data to be stored domestically and placing significant limits on the flow of data across borders.
This desire for greater sovereignty is natural and understandable. Policymakers are grappling with legitimate concerns about the rules that govern content and the use of data at scale. They are also debating the proper size and power of global tech companies. Hovering above these issues is a fundamental question: What do we want the Internet to be?
This is where the Biden administration comes in. An opportunity exists for U.S. leadership to create a new global settlement that addresses these concerns while preserving and enhancing the best of the open Internet and preventing it from fragmenting further.
I know President-elect Joe Biden a little from my past life as Britain’s deputy prime minister during the Obama administration. More recently, we worked together to help establish the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. He understands that the Internet is at the heart of how we solve today’s global problems.
I am not dismissing the real concerns many have about tech companies and data-driven services — quite the opposite. The Internet needs new rules fit for the digital age. I joined Facebook not only because I am optimistic about the good that technology can do but also because these debates are urgent. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has long advocated for new regulations. It is inevitable that Facebook, like other online companies, will be more regulated in the future than we are now.
Of course, Facebook has a clear self-interest here. Restricting the flow of data across borders could have a big impact on our business. But we are far from alone. Millions of U.S. businesses — corporations and start-ups alike — share data across borders, and millions more rely on data-driven products such as personalized advertising to reach customers. A lurch toward digital protectionism could have a devastating effect on the economic recovery across the world.
And the consequences go far beyond the economy. From shopping and video conferencing to instant messaging and social media, services that rely on data being shared across borders could be restricted. Personalized advertising, in particular, is not only valuable for small businesses that can’t afford mass marketing campaigns but also the key that opens the door to a world of free tools and services for everybody.
So what would this new global settlement look like?
First, to create a bulwark against the spread of the Chinese-style Internet, the United States and Europe must revitalize their partnership. Cooperation with the E.U. based on shared values of free expression, transparency and accountability — as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently called for — could be the foundation for a wider global consensus. A starting point should be an agreement on digital governance that keeps data flows open on both sides of the Atlantic.
Second, this transatlantic partnership should reach out to India, the world’s largest democracy. A joint commitment from these democratic powerhouses to preserve and enhance the open Internet would be a forceful statement, especially at a time when Indian policymakers are toying with data localization themselves.
Third, leadership is required to ensure global agreement on a nondiscriminatory approach to digital taxation. This is a global issue that urgently requires a multilateral solution.
Fourth, technology companies should be held to account for the systems and policies they have in place to moderate content on their platforms. No one wants governments proscribing legal speech online, but that should not stop regulators from imposing greater transparency on industry practices.
Finally, there is an urgent need for like-minded states to cooperate in international standard-setting bodies to ensure the wiring of the Internet remains open, not closed.
The Internet has long been shaped by U.S. companies and U.S. values such as free expression, transparency, accountability and the encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship. The Biden administration could now help secure what is left of the global Internet from the dark cloud of digital protectionism and keep it open, accessible and safe for generations to come.
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