If governments can’t make nice on the Internet, they’ll endanger all of us

[Commentary] The battle over net neutrality is rightfully capturing headlines in Washington and worldwide. Far less attention is being paid, however, to a looming threat that could have an even greater impact on the future: The Internet has outstripped the ability of governments to keep up. On issues as diverse as hate speech, espionage and copyright infringement, governments fear a loss of sovereignty in a fast-moving digital world. On taxation and privacy rights, Government 1.0 can’t stay abreast of Technology 4.0. In response, many governments are erecting national and regional barriers that could cripple the openness at the heart of the Internet. Some of these barriers come from well-intentioned governments trying to protect their citizens and economies, such as those disinclined to trade information about criminal cases and copyright protection. Others, such as unilateral blocking of social media sites in China, Iran and Turkey, are used by authoritarian leaders to stifle dissent and protect their own power. Neither of these dangers are abstract. Most people agree on the basic principles of an open Internet. We have seen the great wealth the digital economy has brought to many countries and people. We benefit from the innovations that have built corporations, employed hundreds of thousands and changed our daily lives. And we recognize the vital voice granted by the Internet to people defending their human rights. All of that — and more — is at risk if the Internet is fragmented by governments trying to extend their sovereignty across cyberspace through conflicting laws, regulations and standards.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some governments will remain outliers, as they do on current human rights standards, for example. It won’t be easy finding a consensus most governments can sign onto. But the question is not whether we should do something. The question is can we afford not to act.

[Douglas Frantz is a former deputy secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs.]


If governments can’t make nice on the Internet, they’ll endanger all of us