December 8, 2020 - 7:00am

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader cum Mark Zuckerberg aide, has been urging Joe Biden to make a priority of defending the idea of the “global internet”. Clegg grasps that currently there is no such thing. The Chinese internet, he told attendees of the Web Summit conference, “is based on a completely different set of values” to the Western internet.

What concerns Clegg is that other nations are being inspired by the Chinese example. “I think there really are basically two paradigms now struggling for supremacy in terms of how the internet is architected,” he said:

…you have, here in Silicon Valley, these companies which have pioneered an open, seamless approach to the internet, which has been adopted by very many parts of the world. But you see, in cases like Pakistan, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam, there’s this accelerating move to almost emulate the more insular approach…
- Nick Clegg

Clegg is not wrong about that. As the cybersecurity reporter William Chalk has written:

China has led the campaign for legitimising the notion of internet sovereignty. This concept attempts to align the notion of state sovereignty with a key authoritarian priority: absolute control over the domestic network and a population’s digital experience.
- William Chalk, SupChina

For example, Vietnam followed China in establishing cybersecurity laws that gave its government sweeping powers to monitor and block information. Russia has attempted to ban VPNs and disable data services in unstable regions — and has even experimented with its own internal internet, RuNet.

No one in the West should be surprised. Western commentators have spent years applauding the role that social media plays in turning populations against authoritarian governments, and enabling the logistics of dissent and revolution. The most recent example of this trend was Belarus.

To advertise an “open, seamless” internet to a repressive government is to advertise a fox to a turkey. There is a reason Westerners had to smuggle samizdat into the Soviet Union rather than asking the Soviets to give free rein to independent publishing houses.

If Western institutions do not want nations to fall within the Chinese sphere of influence, they have to be realists and not idealists. The idea of an “open, seamless” internet is contested enough within Western states — amid a thousand arguments about misinformation, hate speech, propaganda, obscenity et cetera — where instead of blandly preaching “openness”, people ask how much openness, and why.

This is true externally as well as internally. Across political divides, there is wide agreement on the basic concept of online border protection. From progressive activism against “Russian bots” to Right-wing campaigns against Chinese apps like TikTok, everybody knows the “global internet” is an idealistic fantasy. Instead of thinking in such lofty terms we should perhaps assess the value of trade and free movement in colder and more specific terms. That might not always be good for multinationals but it might be good for nations.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.