Debunking the myth of a Digital Cold War, before it’s too late

There is no digital Cold War. But perpetuating that myth could create one, and that’s not a good thing, writes author.

World Conference on International Telecommunications closing session
"WCIT was controversial because a number of governments wanted to use the treaty to create an internationally sanctioned regulatory regime for the internet that could have been used to justify surveillance, censorship, and other forms of heavy-handed regulation," writes Brown [EPA]

With the end of the Cold War and the rise of the global internet, mankind witnessed the collapse of the bipolar, zero-sum world that had dominated international relations for the better part of a century. The system that replaced it included new forms of communication and information sharing that defied traditional understandings of geographical boundaries and power relationships. And as governments around the world have begun to understand the disruptive power of this new paradigm, many are attempting to assert control over the global internet. 

The media and pundits have responded to this phenomenon by pronouncing the dawn of a “digital Cold War,” between online freedom and digital repression. However, other than the renewed ideological sparring of old foes, there is little evidence actually indicating that such a paradigm exists.

The digital Cold War narrative attempts to fit the messy world of global internet politics into a binary model: governments either promote the free flow of information online internationally, or they seek to break up the global internet in national bits and impose control over it, violating citizens’ rights. But like most clean dichotomies, this one is false. It is also harmful. 

It’s not just punditry; the framing of this issue matters. Debates over internet governance are coming to a head in the next few years and perpetuating this false paradigm could lead to a political showdown that results in more governmental control of the flow of information online.

Sticky WCIT

Those advancing the digital Cold War narrative tend to point to the outcome of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a conference held in Dubai last December. At WCIT the world’s governments gathered to renegotiate an outdated international telecommunication treaty. WCIT was controversial because a number of governments wanted to use the treaty to create an internationally sanctioned regulatory regime for the internet that could have been used to justify surveillance, censorship, and other forms of heavy-handed regulation.  

Ultimately, the treaty that was adopted was neither as draconian nor as forceful as some feared. It didn’t contain the most problematic proposals, such as those contained in the submission put forth by Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, China, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Iraq, and Sudan, which called for an increased role for governments in internet regulation, and could have led to restrictions on content, access, and privacy rights. 

But certain provisions on spam, security, and a non-binding resolution on the internet–which could be interpreted as inviting the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN body that organised WCIT, to play a larger role in internet policy–were enough to prevent some countries from signing. This left 89 countries that signed the treaty and 55 that did not.

At first glance, the breakdown of signatories does resemble a Cold War-like divide. China, Iran, and Russia, and much of the developing world signed on, while the US, the European Union countries, Canada, Australia, and Japan all refused.

But that analogy is full of holes. Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, and Uruguay also signed the treaty, while Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Kenya, and the Philippines did not. And many of these countries–signatories and non-signatories–are thought leaders on internet governance issues, not merely pawns in a digital Cold War.

Applying the Cold War analogy to understand the breakdown of signatories also misses a critical fact: all countries with a national internet penetration rate of less than 30 percent who ere eligible to sign the treaty, did. 

It’s possible that the treaty’s explicit recognition of a country’s right to access to international telecommunications services was a more powerful inducement than any fear of increased state control.

While the framing of the language is problematic (in international human rights law individuals are the bearers of rights, not governments) it is not difficult to see how some governments might have gone to WCIT with a development agenda and felt that they were advancing a legitimate national priority by signing. Additionally, given the gaping digital divide and the fact that large U.S and European based companies and telcos dominate the economy of the internet, it is a natural and justifiable response for smaller, less powerful countries to turn to the UN. 

Perpetuating the digital Cold War myth could create one, and that’s not a good thing

By grouping together governments who genuinely seek to restrict online communications with those for whom affordable access is a priority, the digital Cold War analogy fails to recognise legitimate concerns and risks alienating a significant portion of the developing world. Perpetuating this false binary may push governments in the middle to choose sides. And that won’t help the open web: as WCIT demonstrated, that those who prefer the status quo of openness are outnumbered by those who prefer reform, whatever their motivations.

So where does this narrative come from? It’s worth looking at who benefits: governments, politicians, the military and intelligence services, and the private sector. A story of digital hostilities and political blocs mean funding, reaffirmation of state powers, and justification for surveillance. And who loses? Pretty much everyone else, because when governments are caught up in arms races, lobbying, and surveillance, there are little resources left for investing in the infrastructure that is sorely needed in much of the world. 

And although WCIT is fresh in the minds of observers, it was neither the beginning nor end of global posturing over the internet. A decade ago, very similar battles over internet governance played out at a pair of high-level UN meetings, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). WSIS concluded with consensus that a decentralized and distributed form of governance, rather than a government-dominated system, was best.  

But nearly ten years after WSIS there is an effort underway to review the summit, which could reopen these old debates. And in an upcoming ITU plenipotentiary meeting in 2014, the body will renegotiate its Constitution and Convention, presenting another opportunity for governments to reassert their sovereignty over the global internet.

Some will argue that it’s a fait accompli: the war for the internet has already begun, and the focus should be on winning rather than averting it. But that is simply not true. Some of the most influential emerging global powers still have not decided on which side of the supposed ‘digital iron curtain’ they fall. 

Over the last two years India, for example, has shifted its position from supporting proposals for the creation of government-dominated bodies for internet policy-making to not signing the WCIT treaty because of the inclusion of the non-binding resolution on the internet. Similarly, Brazil and South Africa have also been refining their position on global internet governance reform over the last few years. 

Rather than erecting digital iron curtains, now is the time for all sectors, all countries to work together to bridge divides, face reality, and tackle real issues. This means addressing the unpleasant truth that there are immense inequalities in the distribution of access and power when it comes to the digital age. Let’s reject this invented conflict, learn from history, and focus on the real problems.

Deborah Brown is a Policy Analyst for Access (, where she focuses on the intersection of internet governance policy and human rights. Previously, as the Leo Nevas human rights fellow with the UN Association of the USA/UN Foundation she conducted research on the role of the UN system in promoting and protecting human rights online.

You can follow Deborah on Twitter  @deblebrown