Who’s on top? The US-European struggle for internet leadership

The new, U.S./EU Trade & Technology Council’s (TTC) first meeting in Pittsburgh in late September highlighted the differences between Europe and the United States on how governments should approach the internet. Broadly, the U.S. and Europe have offered different perspectives over the rules of the road for the internet for decades, and — combined with the Chinese-Russian highly nationalist model — offer three alternate pathways for the future of the internet. Most other countries, the internet and computer industries, and billions of users around the world are watching to see who’s on top.

Although trade, R&D and climate policies are also important parts of the TTC’s mandate, there are numerous other venues for US-EU talks on these three topics, suggesting that the real purpose of the TTC is how to manage the internet. While internet policies are only one piece of a much larger, increasingly tense, European-American relationship, the struggle over control of the internet has its own history, and — because of the internet’s impact on society, trade, security, and national politics — internet policy may have now become the single most important feature of the transatlantic relationship.

To understand the different perspectives, one must begin a few decades ago.

The third perspective on internet governance — the highly nationalistic one pursued by China, Russia and around a dozen other countries — for brevity’s sake, will not be addressed here. But it provides an important, third approach to internet governance.

By the mid-1990s, many European leaders recognized that the era of free-standing, unconnected computers was ending and that, in the future, networked computers would be a globally-dominant industry, as the aerospace, entertainment and the mainframe computer industries had been: Whoever housed and controlled the coming networked computing industry would hold the high ground in guiding and perhaps controlling the world’s economy, security and culture.

Many Europeans were determined to not let Americans dominate yet another controlling industry, but, at the time, it was not clear whether private networks, like France’s Minitel, or open networks, like…