WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled an international “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” with 50 other countries, slamming the policies of “authoritarian” governments — while endorsing efforts to curb online “disinformation” and “harassment.”
The document outlines ideas for “reclaiming the promise of the Internet” and US officials described it as an effort to counter the practices of countries including China and Russia. It notably doesn’t mention domestic US struggles over internet freedom, such as politically motivated censorship of news stories by private companies and alleged illegal government mass surveillance.
“Access to the open internet is limited by some authoritarian governments and online platforms and digital tools are used to repress freedom of expression and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the three-page declaration says.
“State-sponsored or condoned malicious behavior is on the rise, including the spread of disinformation and cybercrimes such as ransomware, affecting the security and the resilience of critical infrastructure while holding at risk vital public and private assets,” it continues.
“At the same time, countries have erected firewalls and taken other technical measures, such as internet shutdowns, to restrict access to journalism, information, and services, in ways that are contrary to international human rights commitments and obligations.”
It adds: “Online platforms have enabled an increase in the spread of illegal or harmful content that can threaten the safety of individuals and contribute to radicalization and violence. Disinformation and foreign malign activity is used to sow division and conflict between individuals or groups in society, undermining respect for and protection of human rights and democratic institutions.”
The term disinformation has been used to censor content that later gains broad acceptance — such as The Post’s reporting on documents from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which Twitter blocked and Facebook throttled, and speculation that COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab, which Facebook banned before US intelligence agencies later found the scenario one of two “plausible” pandemic origin theories.
The document is non-binding and vague. For example, it doesn’t describe a specific remedy for disinformation, but does call for governments to “[f]oster greater exposure to diverse cultural and multilingual content, information, and news online.”
“Exposure to diverse content online should contribute to pluralistic public discourse, foster greater social and digital inclusion within society, bolster resilience to disinformation and misinformation, and increase participation in democratic processes,” it says.
The internet declaration comes just days after the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, reached a deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion and establish a new pro-free speech vision of not censoring content unless required by law. Musk specifically condemned Twitter’s decision in October 2020 to suspend The Post’s account for publishing what the billionaire called “truthful” news.
The new document is signed by many US allies, including the governments of France, Israel, Japan and the UK, but the list doesn’t include many of the largest but relatively poor democracies, such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines.
The international declaration calls for a “free” and “open” internet and condemns “censorship.” Its wording also broadly condemns “harassment” and “intimidation” and calls for signers “to make the internet a safe and secure place for everyone, particularly women, children, and young people.”
The countries “[r]eaffirm our commitment that actions taken by governments, authorities, and digital services including online platforms to reduce illegal and harmful content and activities online be consistent with international human rights law, including the right to freedom of expression encouraging diversity of opinion, and pluralism without fear of censorship, harassment, or intimidation,” it says.
On a White House-organized call, a Biden administration official said “we have seen a trend of rising digital authoritarianism.”
“Some states have been acting to repress freedom of expression to censor independent news sources, to interfere with elections, promote disinformation around the world and deny their citizens other human rights,” the official said.
“The last few months that provide an extreme example of such behavior in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia has aggressively promoted disinformation at home and abroad, censored internet news sources, blocked or shut down legitimate sites and gone insofar as they physically attack the internet infrastructure in Ukraine.”
The official added: “Russia however is hardly alone, but is just one of the leaders of a dangerous new model of internet policy, along with the People’s Republic of China and some of the other most censorial states in the world.”
A reporter asked about Big Tech’s role in the framework.
“[Big Tech] are obviously stakeholders in this and we’ve consulted — like any other civil stakeholder, any other members of society,” the official replied. “But the primary impetus here was to get this question of state behavior and to meet what we see as a very negative trajectory and what we’ve seen as an effort to really sort of fundamentally change internet, the nature of the internet, from something that is an instrument of commerce and culture to something that is an instrument of state power.”
The official said that signers agree that there are some “things that should be off limits” — when it’s “obvious surveillance of your citizens, whether it’s blocking legitimate news sources, whether it’s shutting down the internet, or whether it’s interfering with the elections of other countries.”
The US government conducts some of its own contentious surveillance programs, including to intercept data that traverses connections that make up the internet’s backbone. Two federal appeals courts ruled 2013 that a dragnet phone-records program exposed in while Joe Biden was vice president was illegal and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in February alleged that there’s a collection program unknown to the public that is “outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection.”