In December 2020, ASD held a security and geopolitics workshop as part of the Good Web project entitled “Democratic Values and the Internet.” Participants included experts in cyber policy, cybersecurity, foreign policy, law, human rights, and internet freedom, and they had regional expertise on Europe, the United States, India, and China.

Key takeaway: Authoritarians are both fine-tuning and rolling out technologies that challenge the free and open Internet and risk further entrenching state control. Democracies urgently need a positive vision for the future Internet that upholds democratic values and presents an attractive alternative to the Internet that authoritarians are selling. But assumptions about what features constitute and further a democratic system, and the values they uphold, have been muddied since the end of the Cold War. And the societal changes brought about by the Internet’s evolving role in everyday life only complicate values further. In fact, democratic procedures may be easier to specify than values themselves.

Why it matters: The time to shape the future Internet is now. Democracies are often focused on what needs to be excluded, but they have done less work recently to build a new vision for the Internet that is compatible with and advances democracy. The language of many democratic values, as well as democratic practices like voting, have been co-opted in both lapsed democracies and in authoritarian regimes. Xi Jinping touts what he calls “China’s people’s democracy,” while Russia still holds non-competitive elections for the theater of political legitimacy. Autocratic narratives are also increasingly emerging from democratic contexts as the language and models advanced by leading authoritarian actors become more accepted in the international system.

What we agree on: Online privacy should be a core feature of the future Internet—but approaches to online privacy will inherently remain in balance with other societal values and benefits, such as economic activity, some forms of innovation, public health, and security.

The growth of private companies’ power on the Internet has also meant that they have displaced some of the responsibilities of governments—without inheriting the corresponding public accountability. Democratic societies need to provide citizens with the capacity for recourse against potential harms committed online, clarify the roles of Internet stakeholders, and determine who is responsible for safeguarding values online.

Points of tension: Democracies do not universally prioritize values and principles in the same way. For instance, citizens and governments in some democracies weigh the trade-off between security and civil liberties more heavily in favor of security than others; India is a prime example of such a security-first democracy. Democracies also have differing conceptions about data and its uses.

There is also a tension between the push for an objective shared truth and the need to leave space for pluralism, which underscores the importance of procedures and verifiability as central to robust democratic discourse.

Offline, individual identity is a core aspect of our ability to participate in the democratic process. Online, technical identity runs into tension with the need for anonymity.

Bottom line: More work remains to build consensus among democracies about a shared vision for the Internet. Clearly defining democratic best practices and procedures and determining how best to implement them in the Internet context may be the intellectual way forward. As a practical matter, however, complete and overarching consensus cannot be a pre-condition for engagement globally—or democracies will find themselves continually on the back foot. The emphasis in building this consensus should be on democratic procedures, and democracies should be wary of letting the prioritization of values derail the creation of a practical roadmap.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.