In its infancy, the commercial web was thought to be a much-needed competitor against the incumbent players in the telecommunications market—or rather it could be, but only if it could steer clear of strangling regulations. So the U.S. created a governance system with minimal state control, enshrining the right of free access within the context of a global, secure and resilient internet.
Over the decades that followed, repressive rulers alarmed by the role of a free, open internet in the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East and in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine turned the technology to their advantage. The U.S. and the EU faced an asymmetric challenge. Even as violent campaigns targeted religious and ethnic minorities, cyberattacks crippled civic institutions and information operations undermined free elections, democracies confronted a dilemma. Their societies were increasingly operating online, and responding too aggressively to those attacks risked further compromising not only their own security, but also the openness of the global network.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may prove to be the end of the U.S.’s relatively passive approach. In response to Russia’s recent aggression, propaganda efforts, censorship and cyberattacks, the U.S. has worked with democratic allies to leverage their digital advantages to great impact. The group effort has also proved that a robust cyberdefense doesn’t have to come at the expense of online human rights.