Digital diplomacy: The Fear of the Spring

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When protests erupted in Tunis, Cairo and Damascus during the course of 2011, it wasn’t just the rulers in Amman and Rabat that feared similar civic unrest. Across the world authoritarian states have tried to smother the potential for similar movements with the classic repertoire of concessions and promises, cheaper foodstuffs and fuel prices, more economic liberalization, less political repression. One area which has been increasingly popular however is gaining control over information. Following the first reports of protests in Tunis, keywords such ‘jasmine’ and ‘spring’ shot to the top of the lists of censors across the world and restrictions on information about the Arab Spring were by no means limited to the Middle East. Although governments across the world have been successively increasing their capacity to control information, the framing of the Arab Spring as a "Facebook revolution" has given this drive particular impetus. The fear of the seemingly uncontrollable social and political forces that might be unleashed by the Internet has become one of the primary concerns of modern autocrats.

Hobbling global diplomacy - new alliances stoking old discontents

At the same time this “fear of the spring” has become increasingly relevant in global diplomatic negotiations. While negotiations on a broad range of issues have been influenced by this phenomenon, these effects have primarily been experienced in the field of media and communications regulation. This phenomenon can be observed in diplomatic negotiations across the board: whether in negotiations for the new cybersecurity strategy being prepared by the EU, the on-going preparations for the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in December 2012 or at the Internet Governance Forum 2012 currently taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan. In all of these negotiations the underlying fear of is palpable and makes it extraordinarily difficult to come to any broad agreements

However these negotiations also reflect broad and longstanding dissatisfaction outside of Europe and North America about existing arrangements in Internet Governance. It is not just China and Russia but also Brazil and India who have voiced their displeasure with the inappropriate U.S. dominance of key Internet institutions and resources. In this context of such unresolved diplomatic issues the fear of the spring is a powerful ordering force, pushing the BRIC states closer together and creating global alliances that would not otherwise exist in opposition to U.S. dominance in cyberspace. The last time a similar constellation diplomatic constellation came together at the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005 in Tunis, the U.S. was able to convince senior European diplomats that significant changes to the status quo were not in their interest.

Towards a European strategy for cyberspace?

Whether the U.S. will be successful with a similar strategy this time around is an open question. Part of the difficulty in knowing the answer to this question is that Europe does not yet have a common diplomatic strategy - nor a strategy in cyberspace. While the Digital Agenda does provide a framework for decision-making, it stops a long way short of providing a coherent European strategy for diplomatic negotiations in communications governance. This is particularly relevant as numerous European Telecommunications Operators within the trade industry association ETNO have attempted to use these negotiations as a strategic opportunity to regulate communications pricing more favorably for them. At the same time such proposals seem to conflict with the EU ‘No Disconnect Strategy’ to promote communications freedom and access to the Internet for Human Rights defenders, itself a response to the Arab Spring.

As usual Europe finds itself in an important position between the U.S. and other key actors such as the BRIC states - and as usual the inability of European states to agree on a common strategy isn’t making negotiations easier. While the U.S. and Dutch-led Freedom Online Coalition has become an important actor in this space, the fact that it only includes 8 European states (Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Estonia, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden) means that it is no substitute for a common European diplomatic strategy in cyberspace. Until then the "Fear of the Spring" will continue to be a key driver of greater regulation and control in global diplomacy and communications governance.

Ben Wagner is a Researcher at the European University Institute and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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