The United States has led the world for 30 years in advocating for and advancing a free and open internet. This vision, deeply rooted in American values, has radically democratized information, given a voice to billions, spurred opportunity and entrepreneurship on a global scale, and made education and learning more accessible than at any time in history. America’s version of the internet is a powerful force for good.

But today, the free and open internet is threatened by digital autocracies like China and Russia. Digital authoritarians envision an internet that looks decidedly un-American. While our internet is rooted in expression and freedom, China’s is rooted in censorship and surveillance. America’s internet is open, inclusive and distributed; China’s is closed, controlling and paternalistic. 

But numerous objective rankings show authoritarian regimes are eroding the internet’s promise and potential. In fact, internet freedom has declined globally for 12 consecutive years, and China has ranked last in the world for internet freedom for eight straight years, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report.

To combat this trend, we need a new policy agenda that checks the internet encroachments of countries like China and Russia and will deliver a free and open internet consistent with American and Western democratic values. This agenda has three core pillars.

First, America must slow the spread of foreign digital authoritarianism. To do this, America must have a strong defense and offense.

Defensively, we must first protect American democracy and commerce from cyberattacks by malicious foreign actors. Each year, China steals more than $500 billion in U.S. intellectual property. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said that the agency is investigating more than 2,000 cyberattacks from China. 

To prevent foreign election interference, governments should ensure they are devoting sufficient resources to protect against cyberattacks from hostile foreign powers. They should address national security risks posed by businesses with headquarters in adversary countries, such as by developing processes for investigating risks in technology supply chains. Governments should also oppose data localization mandates that use data storage to conduct surveillance. Companies should be able to store data in the location that will best serve their users.

On the offensive side, America must double down on investments and actions that accelerate our ability to innovate and develop game-changing technologies. These are especially important in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5/6 G connectivity –—strategic technology areas where China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars.

Second, policymakers should promote the free flow of information within and across borders. An open, accessible internet is a powerful tool for freedom, commerce and innovation. But in 2022, there were 187 internet shutdowns in 35 countries. This must stop. We must ensure people can connect to the products, services and causes they want, which is impossible when foreign governments shut down access. We should encourage industry standards and best practices to protect freedom of expression online, including implementing intermediary liability laws that protect the free flow of information.

Third, we should build a stronger internet to connect people to each other and their governments. We should use technology to connect citizens to their governments and increase civic engagement, and we should close the digital divide to expand opportunity. To foster healthy digital citizens, we must teach digital literacy and pass a federal privacy law to ensure that every citizen is protected, regardless of their state.

American values are at risk as digital authoritarianism threatens the future of a free and open internet. If digital authoritarianism prevails, America will lose its leadership position in innovation, and human rights will suffer worldwide. To combat this, we need a policy agenda that will slow the spread of digital authoritarianism by advancing a vision for the internet consistent with democratic values. This will enable the United States to maintain its global edge in technological innovation and export technologies that help foster the free flow of information globally. It matters greatly which set of values underpins the future of the internet.


Bradley A. Smith is a director of the American Edge Project and a former Federal Election Commission chairman. Greg Walden, R-Ore., is a former member of the House of Representatives and is chair of the American Edge Project’s Open and Accessible Internet Advisory Board. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif, is a former member of the House of Representatives and is chair of the American Edge Project’s Open and Accessible Internet Advisory Board. They wrote this for