Rising ‘Digital Nationalism’ Could Create New Internet Borders

19 August 2020

Increasing government attempts to censor or regulate the internet may result in new digital borders that could change the ways we currently experience the World Wide Web.

Authoritarian governments have long operated digital borders to restrict the flow of information and censor material it does not want its citizens to receive. But there have also been attempts by countries to create digital borders by enacting rules that limit how the internet and technology companies can operate in those areas. The justification for such rules in democratic systems usually centers on protecting the individual privacy and national security.

Increased EU privacy, antitrust regulations

The European Union, EU, has been one of the most active legislators in this area. About two years ago, the EU approved a massive privacy measure known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. It aims to protect the personal data of citizens and requires companies to follow rules relating to how they collect, process and store such information.

Belgium EU Facebook
Belgium EU Facebook

The regulations cover not only all EU nations, but also American-based technology companies doing business there, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.

In recent years, the EU has launched numerous investigations into U.S. technology companies for violating rules related to privacy protection or antitrust laws.

The European Commission (EC), for example, fined Google $2.7 billion in 2017 for unfairly influencing online search results for its own businesses. Then, in 2018, Google was hit with a record $5 billion antitrust fine related to its business operations.

Several additional investigations involving technology companies are ongoing in the EU into possible violations of user privacy or antitrust regulations.

Justin Sherman is an expert on internet technology and cybersecurity at the Atlantic Council, a research group in Washington. He told VOA that EU regulatory efforts over the years have resulted in changes that have reshaped the internet experience in Europe in some ways compared to the U.S.

"Now there's increasing divergence a little bit in how the regulations shape that space."

Sherman added that there are also increasing attempts – many by authoritarian governments - to use technology to block data from getting in.

"States are limiting just how easy it is for information to flow across borders."

James Lewis is a senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He told VOA that even though increasing efforts to regulate or block parts of the internet exist, he still sees the internet as the worldwide network it was first set up to be.

"The basic information superhighway was based on protocols that still work, and they still connect everyone. But a lot of countries have put speed bumps in the highway."

Lewis said that in the beginning, internet regulation was considered unnecessary. But today, there are a lot more public concerns about how people and organizations can misuse it.

"It's privacy and security more than anything else that drives a lot of these speed bumps."

Even the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for major changes to make the internet better for humanity. Last year, he released a "Contract for the Web," designed as a guide for governments, companies and citizens to take actions in an effort to improve the web.

Lewis noted a recent ruling by the EU's top court that found that an existing agreement on transatlantic data flows is no longer acceptable and must be recreated. The agreement, known as the Privacy Shield framework, covers large data flows between Europe and the U.S. Companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are affected by the agreement.

Lewis predicted it will not be easy for EU and U.S. negotiators to create replacement rules, mainly because of longstanding differences over privacy regulation.

"I think 2021 will be the year of internet regulation, we can look forward to more of this. It won't break the internet, it will just make it a lot more complicated to use."

US-China relationships

In the U.S., recent threats have come from the Trump administration to ban Chinese apps such as TikTok and WeChat. U.S. officials say the apps could misuse private data and represent a risk to national security.

But both Lewis and Sherman say they see such threats as politically driven in a complex U.S.-China relationship. Such bans would be nearly impossible to enforce, they noted.

Sherman says it would be more useful for the government to set up better "trust-vetting" processes to identify which apps and technologies present specific privacy and security risks.

He also called for the development of "strong democratic coalitions" to create better internet freedom policies. In the U.S., building more political will can also better equip officials to create stronger digital policies at home, Sherman added.

"It is possible – and we should want this – it's possible to both uphold those democratic regulations at home, and contest this technological authoritarianism abroad - we can do both."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story, with additional information from Reuters. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

regulate v. to make rules or laws that control something

digitaladj. relating to computer technology and the internet

authoritarian adj. enforcing or pushing for strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom

divergence n. going in different directions

protocol n. rules for the way a system operates

bumpn. a raised, round area on a surface

complicated adj. involving a lot of different parts in a way that is difficult to understand

app n. a program for a smartphone or other device that performs a special function

vet v. examine details about something in order to make a decision

contestv. to say formally that something is wrong or unfair and try to get it changed