The internet must not break apart into a liberal version used by the West and an authoritarian one which China could export to developing countries, Tony Blair has said.
The former UK prime minister said rival powers should find a way to co-operate in the digital world to prevent mutually destructive cyberattacks.
He said it was in the West’s interests to be able to service the internet globally, including in emerging economies which could seek quick-build infrastructure from China.
Beijing’s Digital Silk Road initiative has seen Chinese companies export digital infrastructure around the world. Washington has pressured its allies to reject Chinese tech over fears of espionage.
Analysts have spoken of a “splinternet” in which countries increasingly try to regulate the web within their own borders.
Once rival infrastructure is set up, it could be hard to bring together because of the physical supply chains and undersea cables that support the internet, said a report by Mr Blair’s policy institute.
Mr Blair said Chinese infrastructure was appealing to many countries because it took too long to get projects approved in the US and Europe.
“If you’re an African leader and you’re trying to get some infrastructure done in your country through the West, you get locked up in committees and bureaucracy and World Bank reports and box-ticking exercises,” he said.
He said at an event hosted by his institute that world powers should try to “carve out some practical rules” on maintaining the global internet.
“I think the risk of a complete decoupling is that you get into a competition that leads to confrontation,” he said.
“The damage that we can do to each other on this is immense, incalculable.
“I think you’ve got to try and carve out, within that, some practical rules that allow us to coexist. The consequences of trying to decouple absolutely … I think are going to be very painful for both sides.”
The institute’s report said key areas of co-operation should include measures to prevent internet shutdowns. A five-hour glitch at Facebook caused widespread consternation earlier this week.
Mr Blair, who presided over the early days of the internet age, as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said many politicians did not understand the key issues.
“For a lot of policymakers, technology and innovation is something they in principle understand the importance of, but in detail find incredibly difficult and challenging,” he said.
“I think one of the biggest problems today is that the changemakers and the policymakers are in two different rooms.”