Inside the Digital Society: The past and future of the internet

“In the last quarter of a century the internet has changed the world. New digital technologies are accelerating change and will transform the future.” That’s received wisdom in the digital community – and business and politics as well.

The internet’s enabled big changes in the way we do things, and the latest wave of new technologies will accelerate those. It’s enabled big changes, too, in the nature of governance – from better service provision to more powerful surveillance. And digitalisation potentially puts greater power in the hands of those who run things (not just governments, but also technologists and corporations).

Radical rethinking

This has required and is requiring radical rethinking of what governments can and should do, in their own interests and in those of citizens. It’s reshaping relationships between government, citizens and businesses – in some ways that I’d say are positive, but others not: more stakeholder engagement, but more concentrated power over communications; more evidence available to make good policy, more policy that’s driven by misinformation and poor understanding of what the data say.

Big changes in governance, in short, are happening and are needed in response to the ‘data revolution’, and it matters what they are. Old ways of doing things aren’t going to be fit for future times.

and in the internet

The same logic should apply to governance of the internet itself: if anything more so given the exceptionally rapid pace of its own evolution. It’s unlikely that ways of doing things that worked well when the internet was used by just a few geeks in America will be good at running the world’s primary communications network for citizens from Chad to China.

Internet governance has evolved over the years, of course, sometimes intentionally (ICANN), sometimes unexpectedly (the power today of Amazon and Facebook), but it’s still powerfully rooted in its origins: what worked for it when it disrupted, then uprooted, the conservative world of mostly state-owned telecoms.

Discussing the future of the internet

I’ve been following some of the discussions going on within the internet community at present around the future of its governance. What I find most striking is that they are so conservative in tone: more concerned with preserving what has worked in the past than exploring what might suit the future. Those who’re most keen on the internet disrupting other sectors are often least keen on it disrupting the internet itself.

There’s a balance to be struck here between building on the established value of existing institutions and recognising the need for them to respond to changing circumstances. Over time that requires more than tweaks and tinkering, but radical rethinking. This is true of every area of governance, and the internet is no exception. Are the ways we have done things going to suit the future, particularly when that future’s changing fast and affected by many other factors?

So, coming to the point, I’d say that those who are concerned about the future of the internet need to look more towards the forms of governance that will work in the digital society that’s coming. They should seek to build on past experience and institutions, not just patch them up. They should welcome new ideas and innovations, as they’d welcome them elsewhere, not try to fend them off.  And they should recognise where changes they don't like have happened and respond to them rather than wishing that they hadn't.

Contradictions on the road ahead

I see problems coming to a head here for a number of reasons. Marxists (I’m not one) might call these contradictions inherent in the current system. I’ll give you six, each of which might merit many blogs alone. I summarise them briefly here to trigger thought.

The internet is more/less important

First, the internet is growing more important but also growing less important. Yes, it is becoming ever more pervasive, and yes, society's becoming more and more dependent on it. But it’s no longer the new kid on the block where digitalisation is concerned, nor the leader of the gang. It’s the enveloping data revolution – the digitalisation of this, that and everything – that is now the driving force, to be followed by artificial intelligence. The internet’s an important part of digitalisation, but digitalisation’s something bigger.

Governance in general or governance of the internet

Second, ‘internet governance’ is about the governance of the internet but it’s also, more importantly, about governance of how the world’s affected by the internet. Those discussions amongst internet insiders I’ve been listening to are concerned almost entirely with the former, with looking out for what’s good for the internet. The internet’s too important now to economy, society and culture for that to be the first priority for governance in general. What matters to governments, citizens and businesses outside the internet is what is good for them, for us and for the world in general. What’s best for the internet is secondary to what’s best for public policy.

The old ways aren’t enough

The internet’s old ways have suited it well but they’re not adequate for the internet-impacted world ahead. They don’t provide a template for AI, either technically or politically/ethically, and they don’t provide a framework that balances the interests of the internet (which themselves have changed; see my point five) with governance for the public interest - of the global economy or the environment or international peace and security (to take just three examples). Those interfaces need mutual discussion. This is not happening in many areas at present, and where it is it’s happening ad hoc rather than holistically or systematically. This suits established vested interests, but for how long?

Global isn’t global

Fourth, the internet is global but it’s dominated by decision-makers in two countries. In the past that dominance lay in the United States; increasingly today it is bipolar, the US and China. This is true of digitalisation generally, not just the internet. However multistakeholder some of its institutional arrangements, and however they try to engage developing countries in decision-making, the reality of economic power means that the decisions that matter are coming out of those competing poles. The next Google’s more likely to come from Google (or from Alibaba) than it is from Kenya. Start-ups with potential will soon be bought-ups delivering potential to today’s big corporations. Even major economic forces like India and the European Union have limited leverage, and in niche areas (in Europe’s case, GDPR, itself - I'd argue - already behind the times). And the nature of the internet in China, the US and other countries too is increasingly divergent: that splinternet that internet insiders fear is closer than they think.

Public interest or profit

Fifth, internet insiders claim that internet governance prioritises public interest but the internet today is run for profit. It’s much easier to hold open debates on policy and practice when something’s new and unimportant; much harder once powerful vested interests dominate (some governments as well as businesses). The internet community was keen to avoid what it saw as restrictive regulation in the early days of innovation. That served it (and public interest) well in many ways (though more attention to cybersecurity and the environment would have been welcome), but it’s much less appropriate when decisions taken by the internet’s prime players in their own interests have such impact on the public interest. Even more so as digital power becomes more pervasive, more potent and more concentrated.

Empowerment and disempowerment

Sixth, data empower and data disempower. There’s always been a question mark about what digital technology would do to the relationship between the state and citizen. 'Access to information and to data empower citizens to influence agendas and maximise their opportunities,' was a central message from the World Summit on the Information Society. So to some extent they do. But they empower the powerful more than they empower the powerless. And it should always have been clear that digitalising people’s lives would make surveillance much more likely and likely to become much more pervasive. The data revolution is more likely to shift power away from citizens rather than in their direction. Unless, of course, we act together to achieve a different outcome.

The need to rethink digital governance

None of this is new, but all of it is pressing. Together these six trends – ‘contradictions’ if you will –represent enormous changes from the days when the internet was young and artificial intelligence, as we now understand it, a gleam in the eyes of technologists rather than pressing reality.

Digital governance needs to evolve, and do so rapidly, if it is to address them properly. The surge in authoritarianism around the world makes this more urgent. The parameters for digital governance that emerge from the next few years, as we shift from a world that was predominantly analogue to one that is predominantly digital, will have lasting impact for a generation.

Tinkering with the minutiae of institutions like ICANN and the IGF is no longer adequate for this. Developing competing ethical frameworks to oversee AI is helpful but only really valuable if they lead to actual frameworks for governance. The emergence of competing visions of the internet and its relationship to economy, society and culture is more crucial.

If those of us who care about the future of the internet – and about issues of rights, equality, environment, development and social welfare – are to have an influence on outcomes, we need to think more radically, more comprehensively, more holistically, and above all more imaginatively than is happening right now.

Next week, I’ll narrow down to something more immediate: the coming Internet Governance Forum.

Image: Network, from https://www.maxpixels.net

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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