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60 countries sign declaration to keep future internet open

Lofty, non-binding declaration aims for open, free, interoperable internet in the face of authoritarian threats

The United States, along with some 60 other countries, today presented a declaration in which they pledge to "reclaim the promise of the internet" from "a trend of rising digital authoritarianism." 

The global community is increasingly reliant on the internet, the Declaration for the Future of the Internet (DFI) said, and as reliance has grown so have challenges to the original vision of the internet as "an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure" system. Governments limiting access, disinformation, cybercrime, illegal and harmful content, splintering and increasing centralization all threaten the internet's future, the declaration said. 

To be fair, like other documents of its ilk the declaration is full of lofty ambitions. And like other declarations it's not legally binding. Countries are committing to abiding by the rules it lays out, which include things like not throttling or blocking international access, following net neutrality principles and adoption of international standards, but failing to do so won't result in any form of penalty. 

The US said in its DFI announcement, signees are committing to five principles: Protecting and advancing human rights, promoting an open global internet, making connectivity affordable, protecting user privacy and strengthening multi-stakeholder approaches to internet governance.

Google announced its support for the declaration (only governments were signees), saying that the DFI outlines a clear path to addressing some of the internet's most pressing threats. "We're seeing a number of governments take actions to crack down on the free flow of information and ideas, increase government surveillance, and restrict access to cross-border internet services under the banner of "cyber-sovereignty," Google said in a statement.

While the declaration doesn't call out particular countries by name, it was issued at a time when China and Russia have both cracked down on online freedom. For its part, Russia has acted to restrict internet access for its citizens throughout its war with Ukraine, while China has taken actions like banning social media apps for the activities of their users.

Politics aren't the only broken thing online

The DFI is a political document that focuses on rights, freedom, and other essential, but decidedly not technical, problems to do with the internet. That's hardly the first time the internet has been declared to have issues, which can be traced back to its earliest pioneers.

ARPANET pioneer Jack Haverty, who developed things like FTP and the modern RFC format for internet standards, has said that TCP, one of the cornerstones of the internet, was unfinished when it was introduced to the world. Since then, he said, the online world has simply been constructed on top of experiments.

Tim Berners-Lee, one of the "fathers" of the world wide web, has argued for years that the internet needs fixing. While he is now mainly focused on rethinking online privacy, Berners-Lee's Word Wide Web Foundation has issued its own manifesto that echoes much of what made it into the DFI.

"The power to access news and information from around the globe is being manipulated by malicious actors. Online harassment is rampant, and governments are increasingly censoring information online — or shutting down the internet altogether," the "internet hippie manifesto" said. 

The Web Foundation's manifesto was published in 2018, and asks of governments that they do much of the same being asked of them in 2022: Make connectivity available to everyone, don't restrict the internet and respect user's right to privacy. ®

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