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The war-torn web

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Foreign Policy

BY SEAN MCDONALD AND AN XIAO MINA
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DOUG CHAYKA AND JASON LI FOR FOREIGN POLICY DECEMBER 19, 2018

The global internet continues to fragment. Governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. This new form of realpolitik, which we call “digitalpolitik,” is an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets.

Last month, at the Internet Governance Forum, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a multi-stakeholder effort to define internet principles around human rights law, with calls for protections against cybercrimes, intellectual property theft, hate speech, and hacking from nonstate actors. The signatory list includes predictable supporters, including France’s European Union allies, large private companies such as Alphabet and Microsoft, and internet rights advocacy groups such as Access Now. There were also notable abstentions, predominantly from countries that bristle at delegating their sovereignty, like the United States, Russia, and China.  Despite refusing to sign as sovereigns, the prominence of American companies in pushing for international internet agreements amid its governmental absence highlights one of Macron’s key points: “The internet is a space currently managed by a technical community of private players,” noted one source from the Macron government, quoted by Reuters, “But it’s not governed. So now that half of humanity is online, we need to find new ways to organize the internet.”

Not all digitalpolitik, however, is international treaties and calls for governance. Google, for example, recently announced Dragonfly, a search engine tailor-made to enable China’s government to continue censoring content and news and connecting people’s queries with their phone numbers—and therefore their identities. Dragonfly marked a dramatic shift from Google’s first attempt at working in China and very public, principled stance to pull out nearly nine years ago. Pushback from Google’s own employees, deeply uncomfortable about enhancing the digital power of the Chinese state, caused the cancellation of the project. But the Chinese government maintains its stance: If you want to do business in China, even huge tech platforms will do it Beijing’s way. And, with one of the world’s largest digital markets, China built and encouraged a rich ecosystem of local, homegrown tools and apps such as Baidu (search), WeChat (chat and social media), and Taobao (online shopping).

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