The expansion of the Internet and electronic communications, as new global interdependence and infrastructure of industrial economies, is well established. Networks of information exchange, the Internet has also set up a global commons which, like other commons, is involved in a fierce strategic dispute. Russia plans to start its own network in 2021 and makes up for its weakness in power by active deployment of propaganda and disinformation flows. China, in duopoly with the USA, set up its national network in 2006 and competes in the race for artificial intelligence and 5G connectivity. However, Europe, being a major commercial power, inventor of Linux and the Web and equipped since 2018 with the General Regulation on Data Protection, aligns with the American imperium. Delaying its cyber-strategic awakening and dividing the political technique too clearly, it has opened the door to Google, which will invest three billion euros in European data centers in 2020-2021, that in addition to the concessions made to other Silicon Valley champions. In practice, technological champions, both in the USA and in China, are the spearheads of growth and innovation now present in high technology. The USA, retaining its hegemony and its technological edge, is working on a technological decoupling between China and the West, in which the Huawei affair was one of the detonators at the end of 2018 and whose impacts are felt in the networks of manufacturers, the war of standards, and so on.
Given this situation, traditional approaches to Internet governance—and its own TCP/IP protocol to the base of the Internet might as well be added—are becoming increasingly obsolete if not anachronistic. “The Internet is built on a swamp, everyone knows that the current communication protocol is obsolete and that we cannot improve it,” recalls Louis Pouzin, French inventor of the datagram. With some exceptions, the spirit of the times favors security controls and lockouts in a Hobbesian cyberspace that poses serious political and conceptual challenges for regulators. As illustrated by Latin America, the Arab world and certain Asian countries exalting their nationalist ambition, these lockouts are implemented irrespective of political stances and all the more when States are confronted with destabilization of the social order.
After the diplomatic initiative of certain emerging States from 2012 to 2015 to reaffirm rights and multi-actor arbitration (NetMundial in Brazil in 2014, IANA transition in 2016), this momentum has relatively weakened to show a similar erosion to that of multilateralism. The agenda is more focused on sectoral and circumstantial issues: control of data flows; disruptive technologies (Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, 5G, Deep learning); conflictivity and vulnerability of electronic resources (disinformation flow, whistleblowers, privacy and surveillance, data encryption and extractivism by GAFAMs and BATXs for the Chinese, and so on). Ironically, like the current contradictions, the global campaign for an “ethical Internet serving people”, launched in 2019 by one of the web’s founders, Tim Berners-Lee, promotes an idealistic approach and principles to which the actors of the security and commerce sector of the network ultimately adhere. At the dawn of the fourth decade of Internet expansion, two initiatives, Next Generation Internet and especially Recursive InterNetwork Architecture (RINA), were recently launched to rethink its architecture, both adopting the premise “the Code is Law” stated by jurist Lawrence Lessig in 2000. In other words, the technical configuration of the network is now understood in the light of governance issues (regulation by design). In general, we observe a shift towards more pragmatism and realism among the defenders of a citizen Internet. Behind the surface display of a multi-actor regulation of cyberspace, power relations now shape a good part of the network, in which relations civil society has a say.
In point of fact, regarding civil society, the time has come to assess three decades of activism. With respect to the relationships between social movements and connectivity, a major highlight has been the rise of “connected” protest movements since 2011 (with a height in 2019), whether social justice, climate or pro-democracy movements. Some see it as a sign of a new stage of “social globalization”, fueled by injustices and rampant inequalities. Protesting masses are feared and often suppressed by both democratic and authoritarian governments. They have gained a fantastic capacity for mobilization and occupation thanks to connectivity, but on the other hand, their strategic and tactical capacities have diminished due to their lack of structure and counter-insurgency measures. In this respect, the era of connected multitudes is still devoid of an organizational culture to replace the avant-garde parties and the organization invented by national liberation struggles, workers’ movements or certain traditional political parties. It should be noted that these especially urban movements do not necessarily embrace alternative and free uses of the Internet. Their rise comes with a limitation of freedoms and a political tension over urban unrest which in turn strengthens the spiral of control.
Another significant fact is the increased spirit of responsibility in various sectors, in particular among workers in the digital industry. The casualization of work and the nature of commercial partnerships generate more conflicts, including in China. Chinese employees (20 million IT workers) refuse a drastic 996-style work schedule at Alibaba and its counterparts. Google workers are ethically opposed to the partnership with immigration services and the military. Other cases result from the precariousness caused by automation. Coalitions are emerging, in addition to external legal actions targeting abuses in the digital industries. In this respect, the entry into force of the new data protection regime in Europe has increased awareness of rights and digital security. Almost 145,000 complaints were made after the launch of the regime in 2018, with an annual volume of sanctions amounting to 65 million euros. This responsibility rising in certain settings is spreading to others: governments outside Europe (USA with the California Consumer Privacy Act in the very territory of Silicon Valley, Australia) inspired by the new European regime; companies, encouraged to bring their digital ecosystems into compliance and prevent vulnerabilities; municipalities, especially around the municipalist current or Smart Cities, though voluntaristic, tending to re-territorialize digital resources. The breakthrough of the new European regime, however, comes up against its own limits and the speed of expansion of innovations, facial recognition being one of the last avatars. In general, the regulator finds it difficult to get out of reactive and defensive measures to go into the field of preemptive or preventive measures, a priori better suited to the complexity and scalability of networks.
As the third trend, the direct action in favor of a free and secure Internet has consolidated. In response to eroding freedoms and growing monopolization, initiatives and poles of resources have emerged in several countries accompanying the struggles and digital transitions towards free, decentralized and citizen ecosystems. This direct action includes legal activism, responsible hosting, technology watch and training, whistleblowers, the offer of activist services, among others. This “self-defense” aspect of citizenship is sequentially gaining consistency with the repeated scandals and successive encroachments in the cyberspace, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica affair being the headliner of 2018. It should be noted that security vulnerabilities increase with network connectivity (50 % average growth in 2019). Local citizen campaigns have won certain victories: ACTA in France, recognition of workers on digital platforms, Free Basics in India, abandonment of digital voting in Latin America, restraints on multinationals in their cooperation with USA migration services and defense, and so on. Collectives, especially national ones, are coordinated more by pragmatic approaches and action protocols (campaigns, advocacy, publications, etc.) than by ideological affinities. International meetings allow exchanges: in particular, the Internet Freedom Festival, RightsCon, the Digital Rights Summit, the World Privacy Forum. The rising constellation of free media, including investigative journalism, are closely linked given their greater exposure to censorship. “Transitional” movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, very often internalize the protection of their digital communications from the start. Privacy, in other words opposition to the extractivism of personal data and the refusal of mass surveillance, is certainly the greatest common denominator of the struggles. The latter, even if the convergences have been reinforced since the “Snowden” year in 2013, are for the moment little systematized and mapped on a regional or global scale. By comparison, Privacy International, together with others (such as EFF and Freedom on the Net), become the counterpart of Amnesty or Transparency International in the advocacy and measurement of digital surveillance, stating their objective of building a global movement. Behind this common narrative of privacy, an essential core remains less visible: laying foundations for governance regimes that are appropriate to digital goods.
Overall, the big trends reported five to six years ago continued on their trajectory. The novelty is certainly the shift towards “enlightened pragmatism” in the strategies in progress. Resistance in favor of free and open “non-feudal” electronic communications takes shape mostly at a national level, around general principles shared globally but without a common ideology capable of broadening commitments beyond a cosmopolitan group of activists. Instead of overly voluntarist and grandiloquent initiatives, the strategic compass tends to be oriented towards transversal alliances, methodological spin-offs, federations of actors on scales that allow concrete impacts, both in perceptions and in practices. The political dimension, which often segments networks, and the ideological dimension are a weakness, already identified in the debates around a citizen Internet in 2017. They limit the passage of a constellation of initiatives, marked by a natural fragmentation in themes and specializations, to more consistent alliances.
In a way, digital activism suffers from its own weightlessness and its absence of physical territory, in the sense that its roots and its ideological thickness do not allow it to develop a stronger gravity. In traditional political arenas, including progressive ones, it is relatively rare to see digital issues on the agenda, like other technological issues. Hence, from a strategic point of view, the centrality of alliances, popular education and work in interface with media, municipalist, feminist, ecosocial transition networks, etc. In a diffuse way and in parallel with the mass surveillance which today reaches dystopian levels, there is underway a movement of decentralization of electronic communications and defense of digital civil rights. This polymorphic movement is bound to gain momentum given the trends described. It requires cultural innovations (organization, agglutination, convergence, popular communication) as much as technological innovations. It also has every interest in deepening its offer of digital alternatives.