Five issues that should decide the future of the Internet

With a new report on online governance out, we look at the considerations that should be front of mind when figuring out how to make the Internet of the future as inclusive and open as possible.

By: /
August 8, 2016
internet
A man types on a computer keyboard in this illustration picture, February 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) recently released One Internet, a report detailing different, potential futures of the Internet. The report is designed to offer top-level strategic policy guidance to governments, industry, the technological community and other stakeholders invested in a healthy, vibrant Internet. The GCIG was launched by British think tank Chatham House and the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (the latter which is a partner organization of OpenCanada.org).

So what is Internet governance and why should anyone care?

Internet governance is the development of “shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet” and that span governments, civil society and the private sector.

A common critique of Internet governance is that it’s unrealistic to expect governments, civil society groups and industries to agree on shared rules to govern the Internet’s use and future. Yet that is precisely what this report calls for.

The Internet already connects over three billion people, and by some estimates contributes as much as US$4.2 trillion to the global economy. It has changed how humans connect, learn, socialize and express themselves. It has become such an important feature of our lives that for some of us it may be easy to take the revolutionary power of the Internet for granted. But more than half the world remains offline, and without its participation in the digital world, the Internet’s power will never be fully realized. 

In its new report, GCIG outlines three distinct possibilities for the future of the Internet. In a worst-case scenario, the Internet could become broken and dangerous. In this world, cyberattacks are common, data breaches are the norm, government surveillance is ubiquitous, and mistrust becomes a permanent feature of the Internet, pushing people to stop using it altogether. 

Perhaps more likely is the possibility of uneven and unequal gains stunting the growth of the Internet. In this second scenario, openness is not protected, and the digital world becomes one of haves and have-nots. Billions of people are unable to move online, locking them out of the economies of the future. This results in inequality spreading and social unrest growing.

In the third and most ideal scenario, the Internet paves the way for broad, unprecedented progress. With openness protected, barriers to access lowered, and global cooperation enshrined, it is possible to get billions more people online. This narrows the economic, social and digital divides across the planet, while adding over US$11 trillion to global GDP in the process by 2025. The GCIG believes this is possible, but “requires concrete actions to ensure that the Internet becomes open, secure, trustworthy and inclusive for all.”

So, how do we strive for that ideal? Based on the recent report, here are five issues that will help determine whether the best-case Internet future can be achieved. 

1. Adaptability is crucial.

As cliché as it’s become, the only constant in the digital world is change, and governments should work with the technological community, private sector stakeholders and civil society groups in order to continuously adapt to the evolving digital ecosystem. 

Already we’ve seen the disruptive power of new players like Uber and Airbnb in the sharing economy. Peer-to-peer lending and the minute to minute selling of cloud storage are both positioned to shake up the traditional economy. Blockchain technologies could also pose a serious challenge to formal banking.

Further, the Internet of Things (IoT) could fundamentally change the way humans live. The IoT encompasses products like ingestible sensors for health care, smart buildings, computer vision, wearables and submersible drones, to name just a few. The direction we’re headed is to build Internet capabilities into the very way we live, but because reaching markets is a priority for most companies, an unregulated explosion of this technology could treat security as an afterthought. The data that would be present in these tools would be far more personal than online browsing habits, which makes its safe-guarding all the more important. Responsibly managing the proliferation of these technologies would require governments to be adaptable while cooperating with the private sector and civil society groups to ensure sufficient consumer protections. 

2. Barriers that prevent billions from using the Internet need to be addressed.

Until recently, Internet access was dependent on a computer connected to a fixed network, but with the proliferation of smartphones millions have been able to access the Internet. It’s predicted that the next billion users to move online will do so through mobile devices. This would have phenomenal repercussions. For instance, in Africa, mobile networks have enabled millions to connect with formal banking institutions they were previously disconnected from. As devices continue to be made cheaper in competitive markets, Internet use will grow. However, the limitations of existing physical infrastructure pose a real challenge.

For some remote regions, the physical infrastructure needed to connect to the Internet is expensive, slow or non-existent. Island nations that are not connected by underwater cables must rely on inefficient satellite connections, which significantly limits the Internet’s potential for those who live there. Similarly, many landlocked countries lack enough cable systems to fully connect their populations with regional Internet hubs.

Social problems persist in the online world as well. Women are disproportionately affected by issues of affordability, and as a result, have less access to the Internet than men. Further, in the same way, women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, women are more likely to be stalked, harassed or be the victims of so-called “revenge pornography” online. The anonymity offered by the Internet has only exacerbated these social problems, which continue to prevent women from using the Internet with the security men often take for granted.

Language is another obstacle preventing many from being able to use the Internet to its full potential. Though translation services are making important strides, the fact that some websites are not available in certain languages or that no online presence exists for a language at all severely limits what people can do online. Increasing the number of languages online would go a long way to reducing this barrier.

New economic and social possibilities exist through the use of the Internet, yet according to the World Health Organization, half of people with disabilities do not have a computer at home, and even less have an Internet connection. Even those that do use the Internet are limited in its functionality. For example, not all websites are compatible with programs to help the visually impaired, and not all videos are close captioned to help those who can’t hear.

Internet access for refugees is a growing issue that should be addressed as well. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are currently 60 million displaced people. Providing Internet access to refugees in camps and at support sites would help families stay connected, allow individuals to continue their education, and in time, decrease their dependency on aid by allowing them to continue to engage with the global economy, even after being forced from their home.

These are just some of the barriers to access, but it is clear that for an open, thriving Internet to succeed, coordination across all stakeholders is required to ensure that the physical infrastructure needed to get online in remote regions is pursued, in concert with pledges to increase access for the global poor, women, disabled and displaced.

3. There aren’t any clear norms for geopolitics in cyberspace.

As economies and essential services increasingly move online, their vulnerability to cyberattacks grows. This is why governments are shifting their national defence capabilities online. The report is careful not to overstate the likelihood of cyberwar, but it does note that this new theatre for conflict is very real, and could be very costly. Geopolitical norms to govern conflict in cyberspace are underdeveloped at best and are complicated by the global militarization of the Internet.

So far full-blown cyberwar has been avoided for a few reasons. The first is that a sustained offence in cyberspace would be a huge undertaking that risks escalation. Offensive techniques are currently far stronger than defensive techniques, which means that the risk of escalation poses a serious deterrent.

Governments should work together to establish what is off limits. The infrastructure that supports the Internet, for example, should be entirely out of bounds, because to attack the Internet itself would cause severe damage to everybody. Core infrastructure that is used by civilians should also be off limits. For example, knocking a power grid offline could be akin to bombing a hospital if essential services are tied to that grid.

Because it is currently difficult to verify who is responsible for an attack, countries should pursue agreements regarding what are considered illegitimate targets before developing treaties with one another. In order to protect their interests, governments should also work together in a way to discourage attacks. In the same way that countries that trade together are less likely to have kinetic war, countries that cooperate would not have the same incentive to attack each other in cyberspace. 

4. Multi-stakeholderism is the framework best suited for strong Internet governance.

In this context, multi-stakeholderism refers to the collaboration between governments, the private sector, the technological community and civil society aimed at developing an effective policy to regulate the Internet. For this model to work, all actors would have to recognize that in an interconnected world the decisions of one affect others. For example, if a company develops a technology but does not take security into consideration, then that creates a vulnerability to be exploited by states, which could eventually lead people to move offline because their security cannot be adequately safeguarded.

But is multi-stakeholderism even possible?

There are a few ways this could shake out. An ungoverned cyberspace is possible, but by most accounts would be disastrous. Unchecked threats posed by criminals, hackers, state-sponsored aggression and massive government surveillance would make an ungoverned cyberspace perilous.

Another possibility is for governments to exercise sovereignty over their portions of the Internet. This would increasingly fragment the Internet into a series of fiefdoms, rendering the potential of an open, accessible Internet for all hopeless.

A slightly more appealing option is for governments to retain power, but channel it through international institutions to better establish norms and practices. This scenario could provide room for other non-state actors to voice their concerns and help guide policy, but an unequal decision-making process is flawed. Any method that keeps government officials on a different footing than members from the private sector or people from civil society is an approach that by design cannot fully appreciate the interconnectedness of the Internet. Designing a system like this also guarantees an inability to stay ahead of trends.

Therefore, the best model is one that recognizes that the Internet has become the central system of commerce, communication and social interaction. It is the infrastructure of future infrastructures, which means we need a governance model that can effectively support it. 

5. A new social compact is desperately needed.

Social compacts are the philosophical underpinnings of society: individuals consent to be governed in exchange for social order. Practically, this has meant placing limits on individual rights to various degrees.

The GCIG believes that a Social Compact for a Digital Society should establish a framework “where each actor understands that they have the responsibility to act not only in their own interest, but also in the interest of the Internet ecosystem as a whole.” In practice, this would mean an abandonment of zero-sum decision-making in favour of win-win agreements. It isn’t about weighing commercial rights against state interests, or about balancing human rights against state authority. It’s about recognizing that “effective security, successful business models and human rights are mutually reinforcing in the long run.” If one acts selfishly it harms everyone in the long term.

The authors do make a point of noting that a universal social compact is unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, if ever. So in the short term, we should be striving towards implementing mechanisms to increase the influence of civil society groups and members of the technological community in order to help shape the Internet.

Resisting the temptation to control the Internet is crucial as the very nature of it resists centralized authority. But a framework to ensure the Internet becomes open, secure, trustworthy and inclusive ought to be the goal, and we owe it to ourselves to strive for that future.