A ‘multilateral democratic counterweight’ to digital authoritarians


Today, many democracies are making messy efforts to build consensus around countering China and other countries identified with digital authoritarianism. The British-led D-10, for example, seeks alternatives to China’s telecommunications firm Huawei in the rollout of 5G technology. In December, the White House will hold a “Summit for Democracy,” which advocates hope will advance a multilateral democratic counterweight to authoritarian technological practices, 

These efforts are not without merit, but they represent a defensive and reactive response to a deeper problem. At best, these initiatives might allow like-minded countries to regroup and find common ground before turning to face global challenges; just as likely, they could prove to be simply diplomatic busywork as stubborn disagreements persist among democratic governments and interest groups, they write for Foreign Affairs.

Cyber-utopians once dreamed of liberation spreading from an Ethernet cable; now Washington must ensure that its companies don’t spread exploitation and insecurity instead. Democracies should not let the dream of the Open Internet die, say Webster, a Research Scholar at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, and Sherman, a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a contributor to WIRED magazine:

  • The U.S. Congress must pass a comprehensive federal data privacy law to protect Americans from the overreach of technology companies and to demonstrate a commitment to democratic governance in the Internet age.
  • U.S. thinkers and policymakers should take a global view in analyzing the human rights and security implications of surveillance technology produced in both democratic and authoritarian contexts. Officials must seek ways to enjoy the maximum benefits of open scientific exchange and cooperation while protecting important national security interests…
  • With a new State Department bureau dedicated to cybersecurity and digital policy issues, the U.S. government should consult and cooperate with other democracies that are experiencing technology-related challenges and social eruptions.


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