The war-torn web

The global internet continues to fragment. Governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. This new form of realpolitik, which we call “digitalpolitik,” is an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets.


A country looking to reshape the internet in its own image, leveraging every form of power it can from laws to markets.


China’s digital influence is a product of the centralized power and reach of the government, both as a sovereign and as a market actor. China’s digital infrastructure, which includes content filtering, censorship, surveillance, paid government commentators, and other methods, has long been a counterpoint to the dominant global internet. Early in the history of the internet, China’s government understood its twin potential in fostering both economic growth and social dissent, and it developed regulations to control fiber-optic cables and content. China uses some of the most precise, scaled censorship and control, including keyword search algorithms, human censors, and, now, image recognition tools. Even beyond technical capacity, the government has methodically used laws designed to curb rumors and to jail people based on their online activities, while real-name registration and online credit systems have ensured the ability to connect online action with offline identity.

In recent years, China has been steadily exporting this model thanks to the Digital Silk Road initiative, a government effort to export key infrastructure such as fiber-optic cables, surveillance tools, AI technologies, and hardware to states that would receive them. As much of the world, reliant on a Western internet, deals with a crisis around misinformation in digital spaces, the Chinese government additionally hosts trainings and conferences designs to teach other governments these techniques of control—and thus its vision of how the internet should operate. Iran’s National Information Network, detailed below, is one such outcome of this effort.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: computational attacks, digital identity, surveillance, platform nationalism, infrastructure control, content manipulation, digital services, data localization, regulatory requirements and financial incentives.


The United States is the internet’s original hegemon, albeit ad hoc, at times, and losing ground quickly. Of the world’s largest powers, the United States has the digital strategy that leans the most heavily on private markets to project its dominance, embed its jurisdiction in international infrastructure, and generate wealth. U.S. companies enjoyed global dominance for long enough to create the world’s five largest companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft). As a result, U.S. internet policy is exceptionally market-centric, even before the current administration’s push for deregulation amid historic vertical integration. America’s early market success is also what positioned it to become such an instrumental part of core standards and governance bodies, including ICANN, the World Wide Web Consortium, and the Unicode Consortium.

The domestic trend in the United States is toward protectionism, political power consolidation, and institutional confusion. At the federal level, the executive branch is deregulating core consumer protections, like net neutrality, while threatening reactive, politically motivated regulatory punishment. Congress has, to date, eschewed the kind of legislative infrastructure emerging globally, like data protection or privacy legislation, thus destabilizing attempts to harmonize markets with common standards. Individual states are stepping into that vacuum, enacting policies themselves. For example, California recently passed privacy legislation, Illinois decided it can charge sales tax for internet services, and Vermont is regulating data brokers. The absence of a clear, coherent approach to internet governance and regulation threatens to stall U.S. dominance and is creating space for a range of other countries to contend with their digital political philosophies and approaches. The previously market-based approach could be eroding in the face of foreign challenges. As its main rival, China, projects power outward via State-connected companies, the United States has been moving to block access to its allies’ markets and target Chinese firms. The future may see much tighter regulation as online security becomes ever more of a concern. A country that once saw itself as setting the rules may end up more concerned with defending its own digital borders than establishing global standards.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: computational attacks, digital identity, surveillance, platform nationalism, infrastructure control, content manipulation, digital services, data localization, regulatory requirements and financial incentives.


One among many powers aspiring to push the internet in the direction it wants, and perhaps one day to be a superpower.


In 2014, the country established the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, known in Portuguese as the Marco Civil, and this August it passed a General Data Protection Law modeled on the EU’s GDPR. The law was passed during a period of tumult and transition in Brazilian politics, raising questions about whether incoming President Jair Bolsonaro will implement the law as designed by February 2020.

Brazil’s digitization has also had its share of challenges: Brazil’s elections revealed WhatsApp as a key battleground for campaigning and misinformation, with allegations that Bolsonaro’s campaign in particular benefited from paid operatives who flooded private networks with messages. This reflects a new tactic of influence that included, under the previous administration, frequent shutdowns of WhatsApp and planned ones of Facebook, justified under the language of the Marco Civil. The country has invested heavily in fiber-optic infrastructure both locally and abroad to improve its position in the global digital sphere.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: computational attacks, platform nationalism, surveillance, data localization, infrastructure control, regulatory requirements and financial incentives.


The European Union takes a more constructive approach to internet governance, building consensus among a range of sovereign interests and acting almost like a trade union. Unlike China or the United States, the EU doesn’t export internet policy through its companies; it does so by negotiating access to its consumers, both with platform companies and other sovereigns. The EU’s power is, primarily, a product of its market size and its focus on negotiated compromise. While the EU’s most-discussed regulation is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), its most influential rule has been the Council of Europe’s Convention 108. According to scholarly analysis, Convention 108 has been adopted, directly or indirectly, by more than 120 countries, thus making it the closest thing in the world to a customary international data privacy law.

While the EU aspires to be the most influential internet policymaker, its approach focuses on stability and harmonization as the core value propositions. The EU model is the most replicable, but it also relies the most heavily on the strength of its regulatory institutions and its ability to project jurisdiction over international technology companies, which are less replicable.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: digital identity, surveillance, platform nationalism, content manipulation, digital services, data localization, regulatory requirements and financial incentives.


As the world’s largest democracy, India has an approach to internet governance that’s largely focused on consolidating domestic power and market access, an effective strategy given its market size. In 2016, India’s national government rolled out the Aadhaar biometric identification system as a cornerstone of engagement with public services. Aadhaar has already reached a staggering 1.22 billion people, becoming the global benchmark for digital identity systems while raising foundational rights and security issues, given multiple reported breaches. A recent Supreme Court verdict imposed some of the largest restrictions to date on Aadhaar data, preventing private companies from requiring identification details for service. For better or worse, Aadhaar is one of the world’s largest sociotechnical standards, a foundation for the digital vision promoted by the government of India, and a model for other governments considering biometric systems for citizen records.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: digital identity, surveillance, platform nationalism, infrastructure control, content manipulation, digital services, data localization, regulatory requirements and financial incentives.


Russia is disproportionately influential in digitalpolitik due to its aggressive use of intelligence tactics, delivered at digital scale, to achieve its political objectives. Early this year, Russia’s Internet Research Agency became a globally recognized name after the U.S. special counsel investigation’s indictment of 12 operatives from Russia on charges of spreading disinformation during the 2016 election. The Internet Research Agency, whose activities have gone on for years in Russia and post-Soviet states, employs some 1,000 people to establish blogs and spread memes and messages, with a general goal of amplifying social discord online by tapping into existing issues of social discontent. Russian activities on Twitter alone came from 3,841 accounts, and the agency is believed to have a hand in online media manipulation efforts in Ukraine as well.

At home, the government has encouraged a homegrown app ecosystem, including VKontakte (social) and Yandex (search), while establishing censorship and surveillance mechanisms to control online speech. To help shape online discourse, it has required popular bloggers to register with the state and therefore be liable for government-defined notions of accuracy.

TACTICS EMPLOYED: computational attacks, platform nationalism, surveillance, infrastructure control, content manipulation, digital services, data localization and regulatory requirements.


A country using the internet to strengthen domestic control, whether through censorship or surveillance.



A country using the internet to increase its own status internationally, whether by attracting investment or reshaping its diplomatic image.


The article was taken from Foreign Policy. Full version can be found at: