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US, Japan push for open internet amid rise of authoritarianism

This screenshot shows an online endorsement of a declaration to promote an open and free internet on April 28, 2022. (Kyodo)

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- The United States, Japan and the European Union on Thursday endorsed a declaration to promote an open and free internet amid concerns over what they view as "digital authoritarianism" seen in countries such as Russia and China.

    According to the U.S. government, some 60 partners around the world, including the Group of Seven industrialized nations, Australia, Taiwan and Ukraine, joined the launch of the initiative, which opposes the use of digital tools to repress freedom of expression and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms.

    "We are united by a belief in the potential of digital technologies to promote connectivity, democracy, peace, the rule of law, sustainable development, and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms," the declaration said.

    During an online event to mark the launch of the declaration, Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yasushi Kaneko expressed his strong support for the initiative, welcoming it as an "important commitment" to protect efforts toward enhancing a free and open internet.

    Laying out a set of principles, the declaration said countries should refrain from government-imposed internet shutdowns and blocking access to lawful internet content and services, while protecting individuals' privacy and advancing what they view as "trustworthy" network infrastructure and service suppliers.

    The principles, which also include the promotion of human rights and affordable internet access, are not legally binding.

    The declaration did not specifically name authoritarian regimes that are posing challenges, but a senior official in the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said the last few months have provided "an extreme example" of digital authoritarianism in connection with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    Russia has aggressively promoted disinformation at home and abroad, censored internet news sources, and blocked and shut down legitimate sites, among other acts, the official said.

    Ukraine's Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who also appeared in the online event hosted by the White House, said technologies such as satellite imagery have helped shed light on the brutal killings of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, potential war crimes for which Russia has denied responsibility.

    "Truth is the only efficient weapon against Russia," Fedorov said.

    The Biden administration has also been wary of China, saying it is among the leaders "in a dangerous new model of internet policy."

    A 2021 report by human rights group Freedom House called the conditions for internet users in China "profoundly oppressive," and confirmed the country's status as the world's worst abuser of internet freedom for the seventh consecutive year.

    Authorities in China censored calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was first detected in the central city of Wuhan before spreading globally, and criticism of Chinese-produced vaccines, the report said.

    The United States is expecting more like-minded countries to come on board to support the move, according to Biden administration officials.

    India, the world's largest democracy and known for its traditionally close ties with Russia, was not among the economies that joined the launch of the declaration, they said.

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