The dream of a global internet is edging towards destruction

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Competing visions from the US, Europe, China and Russia could fracture the internet such that it is no longer the monolith we know it as


Tuesday 24 December 2019

The internet appears to be a persistent medium for work, leisure, friendships, news and shopping. It might disappear when the router goes down, or be impossibly slow at a conference where everyone is on Wi-Fi, but these are glitches, not existential crises.

Yet it is not a monolith, even a virtual one. It is a tangle of systems, protocols, standards, hardware and organisations, all of which have to be managed by different bodies – international, governmental, private sector, non-profits. And underpinning it are individuals, organisations and bots uploading and downloading content, and creating the links that give it form.

Somehow it all co-ordinates, offering the illusion of a monolith, but this might change in 2020 as internet governance will be at the centre of a number of ongoing debates coming to the fore. What values should the technology support? How should it deal with free speech and association? What about privacy? Safety from abuse? Social stability? Disruptive innovation? Until recently, these debates took place largely in western democracies, but as more nations enhance their internet presence, consensus, never easy, will be even harder to reach.

The internet is open and interoperable, designed for growth. It is a network of networks, so we can talk about an “internet of internets”. Technologies embodying different values can live in proximity, and several potential “internets” might together constitute the global internet. One could imagine, given the right engineering and geopolitical foundations, a feminist internet, an Islamic internet, a caring internet or an internet of cyborgs.

Today, four “internets” have the requisite ethical vision, technological realisation and sufficiently powerful institutional support. They co-exist, in uneasy peace, each having ideals and engineering implementations backed by regulation and standards. The Silicon Valley open internet, envisaging free flow of data, as both a philosophical and engineering ideal.

The Brussels bourgeois internet, also cherishing freedom, but within a framework of rights and good faith. The European Union is a prime mover, using the muscle of its Court of Justice to assert data-protection rights or copyright protections well beyond its jurisdiction.ADVERTISING

The DC commercial internet, promoting data holders’ property rights, and free-market co-ordination. The US Supreme Court has generally upheld this position, although it is under pressure from trustbusters in the US and elsewhere.

The Beijing paternal internet, a means of implementing social ideals. Most prominently, China’s internet is a means not only of security and censorship, but also crowdsourcing social credit, and gathering data for effective AI.

There is also a fifth model, which is less a vision than a parasite, yet the extent of its disruptive power makes it influential on internet governance: the Moscow spoiler model, encompassing the hacking ethic, and exploiting the free flow of data. Russia in particular has engineered an ideological space for cynicism and conspiracy theories.

There is a dialectic between these models – all have their attractions, even the last, and none is held purely or exclusively by any nation or organisation. They compete in courts, standards bodies and public opinion.

The internet isn’t about to fall into quarters or, as some have predicted, into Chinese and American fiefdoms – 2020 won’t be the year of the splinternet. But these different visions will collide, with global consequences.

Most urgently, when the paternal model meets nationalism, the outcome is often retreat into voluntary or involuntary isolation. India’s removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status was preceded by a shutdown of the internet, for instance. In 2019, the Russian government passed a sovereign internet law, and its security services tested the nation’s ability to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world. Many governments have data localisation laws or are planning them in 2020, where citizens’ personal data must be stored on local servers (nicely within governments’ reach).

The strength of the internet is its global interconnection – 2020 will see a fight to stay connected in an increasingly fragmented world.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. Wendy Hall is regius professor of computer science at the University of Southampton