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"The future of the internet is also the future of democracy, of humankind," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday. (Photo: DKosig via Getty Images with textures courtesy of NASA)

'Declaration for the Future of the Internet' Launched to Promote Open Web for All

The document, said one advocate, "points to a vision of the internet that puts people first."

Andrea Germanos

The United States, the European Union, and dozens of other countries on Thursday launched a global Declaration for the Future of the Internet vowing online protection of human rights, respect for net neutrality, and no government-imposed shutdowns that was applauded by progressive advocates for a more open and democratic web.

"If acted upon," the declaration "would ensure that people everywhere can connect, communicate, organize, and create new and amazing things that will benefit the entire world—not entrench the power of unaccountable billionaires and oligarchs."

"Today, for the first time, like-minded countries from all over the world are setting out a shared vision for the future of the internet, to make sure that the values we hold true offline are also protected online, to make the internet a safe place and trusted space for everyone, and to ensure that the internet serves our individual freedom," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.

"Because the future of the internet," she said, "is also the future of democracy, of humankind."

The unveiling of the three-page document came months after President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy at which his administration was reportedly mulling the launch of an Alliance for the Future of the internet. It also comes amid swelling scrutiny over the power of big tech corporations and continued attacks to online access imposed by authoritarian regimes.

The nonbinding declaration references a rise in "the spread of disinformation and cybercrimes," user privacy concerns as vast troves of personal data is collected online, and platforms that "have enabled an increase in the spread of illegal or harmful content."

It further promotes the internet operating "as a single, decentralized network of networks—with global reach and governed through the multistakeholder approach, whereby governments and relevant authorities partner with academics, civil society, the private sector, technical community and others."

Signed by over 55 nations—including all the E.U. member states, the U.K, and Ukraine—the document states in part:

We affirm our commitment to promote and sustain an internet that: is open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure and to ensure that the internet reinforces democratic principles and human rights and fundamental freedoms; offers opportunities for collaborative research and commerce; is developed, governed, and deployed in an inclusive way so that unserved and underserved communities, particularly those coming online for the first time, can navigate it safely and with personal data privacy and protections in place; and is governed by multistakeholder processes. In short, an internet that can deliver on the promise of connecting humankind and helping societies and democracies to thrive.

The declaration won plaudits from U.S.-based digital rights group Free Press, whose co-CEO Craig Aaron said it "points to a vision of the internet that puts people first" and that, "if acted upon... would ensure that people everywhere can connect, communicate, organize, and create new and amazing things that will benefit the entire world—not entrench the power of unaccountable billionaires and oligarchs."

"We're encouraged by the declaration's strong statements of support for net neutrality, affordable and inclusive internet access, and data-privacy protections, and its decisive stance against the spread of hate and disinformation," he added.

Aaron called on the U.S. to "take the necessary steps to live up to these ideals—protecting the free flow of information online, safeguarding our privacy, ending unlawful surveillance, and making broadband affordable and available to everyone."

The Center for Democracy & Technology also welcomed the declaration, describing it in a Twitter thread as "an important commitment by nations around the world to uphold human rights online and off, advance democratic ideals, and promote an open Internet."

While it "hit on the right priorities" including protection of personal data privacy and a commitment to a multistakeholder internet governance process, the group called on each signatory to "review their own laws and policies against admirable standards articulated in the Declaration."

"For the Declaration to have any persuasive power," said the group, "the U.S. and other nations need to get their own houses in order."

Jennifer Brody, U.S. advocacy manager at Access Now, also greeted the document with a tepid welcome.

"Of course we support calls in the declaration, like refraining from shutting down the internet and reinvigorating an inclusive approach to internet governance, but we have seen so many global principles and statements come and go without meaningful progress," she said. "The burden is on the Biden administration and allies to do more than talk the talk."

This article has been updated to include comment from Access Now.

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