Friday, September 13, 2019

Five Thoughts on the Internet Freedom League

In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Richard Clarke and Rob Knake published an article titled "The Internet Freedom League: How to Push Back Against the Authoritarian Assault on the Web," based on their recent book The Fifth Domain. The article proposes the following:

The United States and its allies and partners should stop worrying about the risk of authoritarians splitting the Internet. 

Instead, they should split it themselves, by creating a digital bloc within which data, services, and products can flow freely, excluding countries that do not respect freedom of expression or privacy rights, engage in disruptive activity, or provide safe havens to cybercriminals...

The league would not raise a digital Iron Curtain; at least initially, most Internet traffic would still flow between members and nonmembers, and the league would primarily block companies and organizations that aid and abet cybercrime, rather than entire countries. 

Governments that fundamentally accept the idea of an open, tolerant, and democratic Internet but that struggle to live up to such a vision would have an incentive to improve their enforcement efforts in order join the league and secure connectivity for their companies and citizens. 

Of course, authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere will probably continue to reject that vision. 

Instead of begging and pleading with such governments to play nice, from now on, the United States and its allies should lay down the law: follow the rules, or get cut off.

My initial reaction to this line of thought was not encouraging. Rather than continue exchanging Twitter messages, Rob and I had a very pleasant phone conversation to help each other understand our points of view. Rob asked me to document my thoughts in a blog post, so this is the result.

Rob explained that the main goal of the IFL is to create leverage to influence those who do not implement an open, tolerant, and democratic Internet (summarized below as OTDI). I agree that leverage is certainly lacking, but I wondered if the IFL would accomplish that goal. My reservations included the following.

1. Many countries that currently reject the OTDI might only be too happy to be cut off from the Western Internet. These countries do not want their citizens accessing the OTDI. Currently dissidents and others seeking news beyond their local borders must often use virtual private networks and other means to access the OTDI. If the IFL went live, those dissidents and others would be cut off, thanks to their government's resistance to OTDI principles.

2. Elites in anti-OTDI countries would still find ways to access the Western Internet, either for personal, business, political, military, or intelligence reasons. The common person would be mostly likely to suffer.

3. Segregating the OTDI would increase the incentives for "network traffic smuggling," whereby anti-OTDI elites would compromise, bribe, or otherwise corrupt Western Internet resources to establish surreptitious methods to access the OTDI. This would increase the intrusion pressure upon organizations with networks in OTDI and anti-OTDI locations.

4. Privacy and Internet freedom groups would likely strongly reject the idea of segregating the Internet in this manner. They are vocal and would apply heavy political pressure, similar to recent net neutrality arguments.

5. It might not be technically possible to segregate the Internet as desired by the IFL. Global business does not neatly differentiate between Western and anti-OTDI networks. Similar to the expected resistance from privacy and freedom groups, I expect global commercial lobbies to strongly reject the IFL on two grounds. First, global businesses cannot disentangle themselves from anti-OTDI locations, and second, Western businesses do not want to lose access to markets in anti-OTDI countries.

Rob and I had a wide-ranging discussion, but these five points in written form provide a platform for further analysis.

What do you think about the IFL? Let Rob and I know on Twitter, via @robknake and @taosecurity.