Policy

Inside the scramble to fix Biden’s plan for the future of the internet

The White House is planning to unveil its Alliance for the Future of the Internet this week following a month of pushback and a mad dash to reshape the ambitious proposal.

the White House

An initial proposal raised alarm bells with civil society groups and other U.S. government agencies alike.

Photo: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Editor's note: After this story was published, the White House told digital rights groups Monday that it is delaying the launch of the Alliance for the Future of the Internet.

The White House is set to announce plans this week for its much-anticipated Alliance for the Future of the Internet, a bid to rally a coalition of democracies around a vision for an open and free web.

But behind the scenes, digital rights advocates, foreign governments and even other U.S. officials have spent the last month scrambling to push the White House to rethink its initial plans, leaving the fine points of the proposal in flux with days to go before the big reveal.

According to a draft proposal leaked to POLITICO last month, the alliance was originally conceived as a group of “like-minded countries” making a set of specific commitments to “promote a new and better vision of an open, trusted, and secure internet.” That includes commitments in areas related to cybersecurity, privacy and data transfers, among other things. The idea for the alliance was spearheaded by Peter Harrell, senior director for international economics and competitiveness on the National Security Council, and Tim Wu, a prominent tech critic and current special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy. It was timed to launch “on the margins” of the Summit for Democracy, which kicks off Thursday and will gather leaders from more than 100 countries to discuss how to stop the spread of authoritarianism around the world.

Despite the planners’ good intentions, the initial proposal raised alarm bells with civil society groups and other U.S. government agencies alike. They argued it was sidelining existing forums dedicated to internet freedom and was being rushed out without thorough vetting from government agencies and civil society, leading to policy suggestions that risked undermining the alliance’s own goals. Several people involved in these discussions described a confused game of telephone among foreign governments, NGOs and other U.S. agencies about what exactly the White House had planned.

“There’s disagreement within the U.S. government on whether the interagency process was completed before the White House went to other governments to discuss this,” said a U.S. government official familiar with the process.

“It was clear that the process by which this idea was generated and was being discussed was not a normal one in the way I understand U.S. government policy formation to normally operate,” said Jason Pielemeier, a former special adviser at the State Department and now deputy director of the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of tech companies and civil society groups focused on free expression online.

Pielemeier convened one of the Biden administration’s briefings on the alliance over the last month and attended another, but left with lingering concerns about both the process through which the idea was coming together and the specific policies being proposed. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he and other digital rights advocates sent a letter to Wu and Harrell saying as much. After Protocol asked the White House to comment on these concerns, Pielemeier received a response asking to convene the groups behind the memo, “which is good news,” he said.

A senior administration official emphasized that the proposal for the alliance is the beginning, not the end of the conversation. “We’ve been thinking about this as a high-level set of principles that will help frame a bunch of discussions we hope to have, including with a wide range of outside stakeholders in the coming months, over the first part of next year,” the official said. “The time is ripe for governments and other actors to come together and reaffirm our vision for the internet.”

This official declined to confirm any details of the proposal for the alliance or its launch date and denied that the idea for the alliance skipped the usual processes. Instead, the official said it went through a “wide interagency discussion and clearance process before sharing anything internationally.” The official said the White House had been in talks with certain governments “for some time,” but acknowledged that others have only received drafts of the document recently.

Protocol spoke with eight people involved in the development of the alliance — both inside and outside of the government —and reviewed parts of a more recent version of the White House’s proposal, to find out how the idea for the alliance has evolved over time — and where it's headed next.

‘A no-China club’

The early proposal for the alliance — marked as being for “discussion purposes only” — began making the rounds shortly before it was leaked to POLITICO and immediately drew concern from would-be champions of internet freedom initiatives. It contained a list of potential commitments that member countries in the alliance would have to make, including a pledge “to use only trustworthy providers” in core internet infrastructure — a stipulation that freaked out some digital rights advocates and called to mind the “clean network” initiative that began under the Trump administration.

White House Senior Director for International Economics and Competitiveness Peter Harrell Peter Harrell, senior director for international economics and competitiveness on the National Security Council, helped spearhead the idea of the alliance.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“There’s no way to read that as something other than a no-China club,” said Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center. “It’s not subtle who they’re talking about.”

Asking governments around the world to root out any internet infrastructure made by Chinese companies like Huawei as a barrier to entry into the alliance struck Pielemeier, Webster and others as unfeasible for less prosperous regions and as a requirement that would limit the pool of participating countries. They also worried that the idea underpinning such a request runs counter to the human rights values that digital rights advocates have been supporting for decades.

“There is a risk — and I don’t know that this is the intent behind the alliance — that it becomes a club where, if you’re a member of the club, the people of your country have rights online and they use this internet, and the people in authoritarian countries use that other net over there,” said Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, which was also briefed. “We’re ceding whole swaths of people and the protection of their rights to governments that have shown they don’t care.”

The senior administration official said the U.S. doesn’t “encourage any splintering of the internet” and, in fact, wants the alliance to push back against internet fragmentation, but views that issue as distinct from focusing on trusted networks. “That, to us, is not splintering the internet,” the official said.

Advocates also noted early on that the proposal lacked the kind of attention they would have expected to see paid to basic human rights issues, like censorship and the increased pressures on tech companies to help state actors silence dissidents. “The lack of the word ‘censorship’ was a pretty big miss on their part,” said David Kaye, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law and former United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Kaye, who also took part in the briefings, chairs the Global Network Initiative.

Both Kaye and Llansó noted the recent example of Russia forcing Apple and Google to remove an app from their app stores tied to opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a prime example of where U.S. leadership is needed. Both companies yielded to Russia’s request, reportedly over fears that their own local employees could be held criminally liable for refusing. Other countries, including India, have similar laws on the books.

“If we don’t mention or focus on and prioritize those really fundamental human rights issues, it can inadvertently send a message that those concerns are not prioritized for the government,” Llansó said.

The more recent proposal reviewed by Protocol includes more detail on human rights, calling on members to, among other things, reaffirm the right to freedom of expression without fear of censorship, harassment or intimidation. The senior administration official said basic human rights and freedoms have been “core to any affirmative vision of the internet” from the beginning.

Race to the summit

In addition to concerns about the specific policies being proposed, some critics were alarmed by what they believed was a rushed timeline for such a large undertaking. “In some ways a summit is really, really useful, because it does create a deadline to get something done,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and a former White House National Security Council staffer who has been briefed on the alliance. “On the other hand, sometimes they create false deadlines where it’s like, ‘Oh shit, what are we going to say at this summit?’”

According to the draft that leaked to POLITICO, the timeline for the alliance was to begin in September of this year with a “core drafting group” of countries, followed by outreach to a broader pool of potential members in October and November, consultations with NGOs and industry groups in November and a launch in December on the margins of the summit. That launch would then kick off a “year of action” during which the members and others would develop their commitments and turn them into a charter.

Both the abbreviated timeline and the outside-in approach struck Pielemeier as unusual, given his time in government. “It seemed like this was very much an idea that came out of the White House and was being shared selectively with a range of outside governments and other actors that had not been through the formal interagency government deliberation process that would normally be associated with this kind of very high-profile, potentially direction-shifting policy approach,” Pielemeier said.

Experts outside of government also bristled at what they viewed as the White House taking a primarily multilateral approach — meaning, government-to-government — rather than roping in other stakeholders early on. “Russia and China use the language of multilateral approaches to internet governance,” Kaye said.

Tim Wu Tim Wu, who also spearheaded the alliance, is a prominent tech critic and special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy. Photo: New America/Flickr

The draft proposal read to some in the field as an effort to duplicate the work that civil society groups and governments have already been undertaking for years inside forums like the Freedom Online Coalition, which includes 34 countries and has ties to tech. Most everyone who spoke with Protocol said that those groups could certainly use renewed focus and attention. But to replicate their work or structure would risk wasting limited time and resources. “People get tired out, and the more they’re dispersed, the less effect they have and the less power they have,” Kaye said.

During the Freedom Online Coalition’s ministerial meeting Friday, former Dutch foreign affairs minister Uri Rosenthal, who co-founded the group, urged the White House to consider its work as it presses forward with its own alliance. “There is this initiative on the part of some people in the White House, as far as I understand, for an Alliance for the Future of the Internet,” Rosenthal said. “For me personally, it's important that this sort of initiative should be grounded on and respect the multi-stakeholder model, as it has been continuously cherished by the [Freedom Online Coalition].”

The revised vision statement reviewed by Protocol answers this criticism by calling on members to refrain from undermining multi-stakeholder approaches. The senior administration official said that in some parts of the world “the multi-stakeholder form of governance for the internet has been under challenge,” and that affirming support for that process “rightfully would be an important piece” of the alliance.

A work in progress

Of course, there’s a counterargument to make about the forums that already exist to prevent authoritarian regimes from abusing the internet: They haven’t managed to prevent authoritarian regimes from abusing the internet. Of the 850 internet shutdowns tracked in a recent report by Access Now and Alphabet offshoot Jigsaw, 90% occurred in the last five years. And countries around the world are increasingly imposing laws that require tech companies to do their bidding.

Even despite these troubling trends, Pielemeier argued it would be wrong to disregard what groups, individuals and companies working on these issues have learned. “Without the efforts of many of the organizations and individuals represented in this letter and this feedback, the situation would undoubtedly be much worse than it has been,” he said. “To the extent we have collectively underachieved in our fight against authoritarian encroachment on the internet, it’s primarily democratic governments responsible for that.”

Not everyone was dissatisfied with the Biden administration’s early approach to the alliance. The Information Technology Industry Council, a lobbying group that represents all of the U.S. tech giants, also submitted input on the summit and the development of the alliance. In a prepared document, ITI wrote that it was broadly supportive of the ideas being proposed at the summit. It specifically advocated for a commitment to “Data Free Flow with Trust,” a well-known policy framework for sharing data between governments, which was not mentioned in the first draft proposal for the alliance but did appear in the more recent version.

“As the U.S. Government develops an Alliance for the Future of the Internet, industry seeks to constructively inform a focus on promoting open, non-discriminatory policies based on rigorous, objective criteria with proportionate and well-justified obligations accompanied by appropriate due process guarantees for businesses and individuals,” ITI wrote in its preliminary input.

The administration official said there’s been “growing interest” in this framework, which was first proposed by the Japanese.

Amazon, Meta and Google, all members of ITI, declined to comment on whether they’d been consulted on the alliance. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the company has been part of these conversations. “As countries around the world gear up for the summit, it is imperative that they prioritize multilateral efforts, including accountability structures, aimed at securing the free and open internet,” Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter, said in a statement. “Industry should be a core partner in these efforts, as companies like ours play a role in protecting basic human rights, including freedom of expression.”

Both Kaye and Pielemeier said they believe the White House has evolved its ambitions based on the feedback it’s received, aiming to unveil an articulation of guiding principles for democratic countries’ use of the internet, rather than a formal alliance backed by formal commitments. Kaye said the lack of inclusion of civil society groups was more of an oversight than an intentional decision. “I am sensing that at least some in the administration see that they should have involved civil society much earlier in helping articulate those commitments,” he said. “I have a sense that they understand the need to involve civil society — and not just American NGOs — more fully as a key stakeholder and participant, not just in an afterthought, consultative sort of role.”

With days to go before the alliance is set to be announced, exact details about what ideas will stay and what ideas will go remain fluid. Both the senior administration official and other people who spoke with Protocol said they hope the ultimate vision statement represents not a finished product, but an agenda for further discussion over the coming year. That may sound like an incremental goal, given the urgency of the issue, but it’s that very urgency that makes it especially important that whatever this alliance becomes isn’t set up for failure. “There’s this sense that there’s this limited opportunity to shape something before it becomes a coordinating mechanism across allies and partners for the future of the internet,” Brookie said, “literally.”

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