Inside the Information Society: Governing the grown-up Internet

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks at how we think about the internet and how it is governed.

In last week’s post, I offered my framework for the history of the Internet. It’s summarised in the diagram alongside.

I pointed to five phases in its evolution, from a small network designed by geeks and scholars to the complex, diverse, global mass market that we have today.

I suggested four game-changers in that evolution – the World Wide Web; Web 2.0 and social networking; cloud computing; and, underway today, the Internet of Things.

And I pointed to three trends that run throughout this history – to rapid changes in technology and markets, to the commercialisation of the Internet, and to the datafication of society the Internet is driving.

This week I’ll look at some implications of that framework for how we think about the Internet and how it’s governed.

The Internet is now mainstream

The pace of change that’s illustrated in my diagram above has been extremely fast. The Internet we have today is very different from the Internet before Web 2.0, immensely different from that before Web 1.0. Different in scope, in reach, in scale. Different in technology, in services, in impact. As different as the jet engine from the dynamo.

Internet insiders still like to think of the Internet as the upstart medium it’s been, disrupting norms of political, economic and social behaviour (and mostly for the better). With innovation as its driver, there’s obviously truth in that.

But, given the scale and reach it has today, it’s also now the norm in many areas of activity, at least in the developed world. Its impact on economy and society is immense and growing rapidly, for more and more of us. Its leading businesses are among the largest and most powerful worldwide, comparable in scale and power with those in energy and finance. Its capacity to innovate trumps governments’ capacity to regulate. And the Internet of Things will accentuate these trends.

So the Internet’s no longer an exciting upstart; it has matured and become mainstream. It’s at the heart of how things work; the new establishment. Which means we need to think about it differently.

Where it’s going matters more than where it’s been

First, we need to focus on the future, not the past. Internet insiders like to emphasise what’s made the Internet successful, and there’s sense in that. But it would be astonishing if the rules and protocols that worked for small networks of researchers with limited bandwidth before the Web were sufficient for today’s mass market global communications medium – or tomorrow’s ubiquitous interconnected devices.

Our thinking about the Internet, its governance and impact on society need to focus on what we need tomorrow rather than what worked well yesterday. If that involves some new modalities, then well and good. After all, the Internet itself broke the modalities of telecommunications technology and governance before it.

Not everything about it’s perfect

Second, we need to recognise more fully that not all the Internet enables is delight. Yes, it offers opportunities for economic growth, social welfare and a revitalised political discourse. That’s why I’ve argued in previous posts that it needs to be more central to sustainable development than is currently the case.

But it’s a medium like other media before it. It also has and poses problems. Some are inherent to the way it has evolved; some from the ways in which businesses and users take advantage of it. Viruses and malware rely on vulnerabilities in Internet technology. Privacy is threatened by default digitalisation. Issues of child protection and gender violence are increasingly aired by insiders and outsiders alike. The World Bank has suggested that, in developing countries at least, the Internet may so far be increasing inequality.

Acknowledging these problems is part of acknowledging the Internet’s success, its importance, its maturity. They are serious problems for the governance of the Internet because the Internet has become so significant – economically, socially and culturally. And so they are also serious problems for the wider governance of society.

What are the implications?

There are four reasons why I think they’re so important.

First, the pace of change. No-one in its early days expected the Internet to evolve as rapidly and dynamically as it has. The timeline illustrated in the diagram above has been one in which surprise has followed on surprise. That’s thanks, substantially, to an exceptionally open environment for innovation. But it causes a conundrum for public policy.

On the one hand, policymakers want to encourage innovation, especially where it benefits end-users/citizens. On the other, they want to avoid problems arising for end-users/citizens from malicious use and, just as important, unexpected consequences. The pace of change we have today leaves little space for that precautionary principle. There’s no time to analyse the outcomes of innovations before they’re fully deployed, widely used, even before they’re out of date. There’s no time to enact protective legislation before it’s overtaken by new technologies and services. How, for example, can governments protect citizens’ data from threats to it which aren’t yet evident?

Second, rapidly changing power structures. The Internet today is, first and foremost, a commercial environment. The networks and services that people use are provided by commercial businesses. Great power is concentrated in large businesses that deliver services and manage data globally, some with very high levels of market dominance. Their business models determine the Internet experience for most users. Their lead role will almost certainly be strengthened by growing use of cloud computing and the Internet of Things.

Yet most debates around Internet governance still aren’t about them. They’re concerned with technology, with access, and the role of governments. There’s much less debate about the role of business than there is in other large commercial sectors such as agriculture, energy, finance or pharmaceuticals. Internet businesses are highly resistant to the kinds of regulation that are normal in other commercial sectors. Is this exceptionalism sustainable?

Third, the risks of system failure. Cybersecurity has become a core preoccupation for governments and businesses of all kinds, not just Internet governance, in recent years. Two issues in particular are driving press and public anxiety. One is hacking: as our data become more extensive and more widely shared, how secure are they? How vulnerable is our access, our privacy, our money from those who want to do us harm online?

The other is the threat of cyberattack by governments and non-state actors, including potential risks associated with the Internet of Things. The largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to date exploited vulnerabilities in IoT devices. The standards under which they’re being designed and marketed don’t ensure security or privacy. Most IoT devices now available are insecure. Billions more will follow shortly. This raises crucial questions for the Internet and wider governance. How vulnerable are online systems to an unregulated Internet of Things? Who is responsible for standards at the hardware/software interface? What are the implications for ‘permissionless innovation’ as we become dependent on those systems and those standards?

Fourth, the importance of the Internet to our societies. I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere and there’s no need to reiterate in depth again. The Internet is changing underlying parameters of our economies, societies and cultures. It’s affecting every aspect of governance, from laws to social norms. It mattered little when it networked geeks and scholars; it matters massively today and will matter even more tomorrow.

Future governance

The history and trajectory of the Internet don’t just raise questions about Internet governance, but about governance more generally. Internet governance has just about proved flexible enough so far to keep up with issues thrown up by the pace of change (though doubts are rising where datafication and cybersecurity are concerned). But the governance of our societies – not just government, but also law and contract, social mechanisms and social norms – is struggling to keep pace. Unless mainstream governance finds ways of dealing with the pace at which the Internet is changing, we may find the direction of our societies determined by the way technology evolves rather than by public opinion, public policy and public engagement.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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