US and EU tech strategy aren’t as aligned as you think

During her speech before the World Economic Forum’s virtual meeting in Davos in January, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen invited the United States to join Europe in writing a new set of rules for the internet: “Together, we could create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide. It goes from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: human rights and pluralism, inclusion, and protection of privacy.”

This invitation to collaboration comes at a time of remarkable diversity in how states are approaching internet governance. Beijing is advancing new internet standards to replace the global, open, interoperable ones. Moscow is continuing to clamp down on the web through a combination of online and offline coercive measures. India is advancing a data-protection framework with large carve-outs for state data collection against the backdrop of the Modi government’s repressive internet shutdowns. A Brazilian official who authored the country’s data localization proposal recently called data flows abroad a violation of the country’s sovereignty. In Europe, the previous watchword of “digital sovereignty” may be giving way to talk of “strategic sovereignty” in the digital sphere, but the underlying premise remains the same: creating an internet environment where European values proliferate. In the United States, the Biden administration is grappling with how to reinvigorate U.S. global engagement on technology while simultaneously managing new regulatory proposals for American tech giants.

This fractured policy landscape has prompted hope that Europe and a United States led by President Joe Biden might collaborate to facilitate a more consistent and predictable approach in internet governance, one that seeks to uphold the fundamental values of the internet. But the United States and the European Union are not as aligned on this question as some might claim. American internet governance has been described as everything from a privatized model to a hands-off-the-internet approach. In the EU, however, varying understandings of “sovereignty” online both reflect and shape the different political contexts in which member states are designing their internet governance models, which have historically been far more willing to embrace regulation than in the United States.

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