The age of Internet exceptionalism is at risk of coming to a close. Thus far, the Internet has served as a platform for data transfer and information sharing that easily transcends national borders. But increasingly, complex pockets of data protectionism, localization laws and “privacy” regulations across the globe threaten to complicate, if not eliminate, this data-transfer process.

A host of global developments, following on the heals of the 2014 Internet Governance Forum, reveal tensions between the contending forces that threaten cyberspace. The European Commission’s (EC) Article 29 Data Working Group recently announced a coordinated approach to enforce the de-listing of links on search engines under the “right to be forgotten” portion of the Data Protection Regulation. Despite the EC’s recent release of a myth-busting fact sheet to counter misrepresentations of the ruling in the media, the working group continues to support the troubling suggestion that individuals or groups will not be informed when their content has been de-linked, making the appeals process a far less powerful mechanism.

“Right to be forgotten” clarifications were released as one of a flurry of statements about the future of Europe’s stricter data-protection and privacy standards. In the second of a new series of “Digital Minds for New Europe” articles, Google’s Eric Schmidt emphasized the benefits of forming a digital single market in Europe that reduces regulatory red tape. In the article, he quotes new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who stated that in order to form a digital single market:

We have to end the regulatory silos in telecoms and copyright regulation, in data protection and in the application of European competition rules.

There is a growing consensus among European heads of state that data-protection reform is a priority, with the goal to develop a data protection framework by 2015. In a recent statement, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Martine Reicherts said strict European data-protection standards are not “fit for the Internet age” and are stifling economic growth, though maintaining strict standards for personal data protection remains a priority.

While the EC recently issued an updated version of the de minimis safe-harbor notice that includes a clarification and compilation of exceptions to the safe harbor and thus continues to facilitate US-European transnational data transfer and trade, influential European governing bodies continue to lobby for increased Internet “sovereignty,” especially in light of Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations. The French Senate is advocating a more “stringent and realistic data-protection system” and threatening to suspend safe harbor renegotiations if European demands are not met. The German government cancelled a contract with Verizon following disclosures that the United States was conducing mass surveillance in Germany.

Elsewhere in the world, governments are flagrantly splintering and taking control over regionalized pieces of the Web. Russia’s well-documented crackdown continues as the government gets ready for “possible cut-offs” from the Internet, according to Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov’s statements to Bloomberg news. Despite assurances that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not, at his Sept. 22 meeting with the Security Council, discuss the possibility of disconnecting Russia from the “global Internet” in times of crisis, the Russian government has made plans to take control over Russia’s top-level Domain Name System (DNS) and discussed the possibility of instituting an Internet “kill-switch” by shutting off the country’s limited international exchange points. Peskov said Russia is planning to ensure that the Russian Internet could function as a sovereign network in case the West removes Russia from the global Internet.

Meanwhile, China is heightening Internet censorship and surveillance, focusing especially on multinational companies. Virtually all Google websites have been blocked since June. The Turkish government is deepening existing Internet censorship, violating freedom of speech and increasing surveillance over its citizens.

Global movements in Internet governance will have major repercussions for the United States. Karen Kornbluh, previously U.S. ambassador to the OECD, explains in an article for Democracy (that I highly recommend):

Preserving the ability of information to flow through the pipes of the Internet should be a major U.S. foreign and international economic policy priority. According to the National Foreign Trade Council, a business organization, ‘goods, services, and content flowing through the Internet’ were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2007 to 2012. Products and services that rely on cross-border data flows were expected to add an estimated $1 trillion in value to the U.S. economy annually over the next ten years.

Kornbluh warns that the push to place Internet regulations entirely under the purview of the United Nations would clog the network with conflicting regulations and fundamentally alter how it functions.

All of which goes to show that, in the end, we are a few government decisions, be they misguided or purposefully isolating, away from a “splinternet.” It is no wonder that Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and one of founders of the Internet Governance Project, envisioned in his closing speech of IGF an “Internet nation,” autonomous and immune to harmful government interference.

The Internet has, up to this point, been revolutionary in its function and governance. It is an incredibly effective platform for information exchange. The hope is that Internet governance will maintain this functionality through equally revolutionary processes. By cutting horizontally across national borders and vertically across traditional power structures, IGF is supposed to be the realization of a revolutionary form of governance in which ordinary members of civil society make decisions about how to run the Internet, alongside government rather than being represented by government. And this governance structure is supposed to keep the Internet a borderless, open platform. But unless we can cut through unnecessary regulations and restrictive laws, all these good intentions and revolutionary dreams will be for naught.
Further readings on Internet localization: