How Europe Can Promote a Free and Open Internet

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waits for guests at the start of an emergency European Union leaders summit in Brussels on June 24, 2018.

Almost twenty years ago, the Clinton administration defined the U.S. approach to internet governance. Clinton’s internet czar Ira Magaziner in 1999 argued “against a traditional regulatory role for government.” “Censorship and content control are not only undesirable, but effectively impossible,” he added. Clinton turned this into his famous quip that China’s effort “to crack down on the Internet” was “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” These beliefs informed advocacy for a “free and open” internet run by multistakeholder governance that became an important goal not only for the United States, but for European foreign policy as well.

Today, that approach lies in tatters. China, Russia and others have proven Magaziner and Clinton wrong. China in particular has pioneered a high-tech surveillance approach to absolute government control of the internet, and has tried to export and promote it around the world. Europe in turn has embraced what very much looks like a “traditional regulatory role for government” to reign in the internet’s excesses, taking action against privacy violations, to correct market failures, and to enforce existing laws on hate speech and defamation. And following Edward Snowden’s revelations, U.S. credibility as a champion of a “free and open” internet has tanked. Many felt vindicated that the United States’ “‘hands-off’ approach to the internet was (…) a mask for U.S. government manipulation and control.”

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