The Internet Civil War

By  |  February 25, 2019, 3:02 PM


A thoughtful Singaporean technologist startled me the other day when she asserted “It’s an internet civil war.” After a moment of shock, I realized that is a powerful, though frightening, lens through which to see where the world may be going.

The internet is in jeopardy as an engine of growth, prosperity, and efficiency. It faces two massive global crises at once. On the one hand, a small band of global technology companies have achieved a scale and influence that dwarfs most countries, even as they have shown insufficient concern for public welfare. Governments can’t respond to this crisis, because for the most part they remain technologically inept.

Yet at the same time, an existential split over the internet has emerged between nations. Is it a vehicle for freedom and the empowerment of individuals, as the Americans who mostly invented it have historically believed? Or is it a means for state control, surveillance, and the muzzling of political speech? China, notably, has taken full control of the internet within its borders. And leaders in Russia, Iran, Turkey, Hungary, and numerous other countries are increasingly seeking to tame online freedom.

Both of these vectors of discord threaten the very fabric of the net. If we cannot figure out how to regulate and manage corporate power online, the people of the world could irrevocably become pawns in a game of data exploitation and online manipulation. (For my detailed concerns about Facebook in particular, see this recent essay in Techonomy magazine .) At the same time, we must find a way for the nations and peoples of the world to agree on certain foundational principles for the management of the internet. Otherwise, more and more countries will go their own way. The net might truly fragment into separate and even disconnected internets, controlled by states with fundamentally different views of how the online sphere ought to function. Just this week, Russia has taken steps to create what could eventually become a separate Russian network.

The internet has, as of now, mostly knit the world’s peoples into one unitary sphere, which is a very good thing. That’s why these conflicts constitute a civil war. We operate commercially, economically and politically on one platform, or battlefield. The future shape of this newly-integrated “nation” is in doubt, as is our ability to keep it as a sphere that unites and empowers the world rather than dividing and fracturing it.

Internet fragmentation is a huge threat to global order and peace. Much of the economic, political and social value that has been created over the last three decades is at risk. A large proportion of growth and progress in recent years is a consequence of this spectacular globe-spanning interconnected framework. It’s helped pull many millions out of ignorance, and poverty, though it must go far further. If the global internet remains intact, it’s easy to see vast potential for future gains across a swath of human activities. This is the only way the world can hope to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for the planet by 2030, agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015. We must build upon that astonishing, heartening, and historic consensus.

The US government is a disappointment in all this, and not only under the Trump administration. Our country has been failing on two fronts simultaneously— in confronting the corporations that wield outsize influence over people, and in confronting China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other nations that want to turn the internet into a tool of control. Our failure flows largely from the fact that neither the executive branch nor Congress has taken these challenges with sufficient gravity, or even fully grasped they exist.

That same Singaporean friend sent me a powerful essay the other day, entitled “The U.S. Has Abandoned Leadership of the Internet,” by Mark Weatherford, deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. (Unfortunately, the article is hidden behind a paywall.) Weatherford argues that though the U.S. essentially created the internet, it has “abdicated our role as overseer and arbiter” in what he calls “an astonishing lack of leadership and diplomacy.”

While it’s a legitimate question whether or not the U.S. ought to “oversee” the net, Weatherford’s basic point is inarguable – we risk squandering one of our nation’s greatest achievements of the 20th century. Weatherford goes on to note that the U.S. did not even sign the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, at the UNESCO Internet Governance Forum in Paris in November. More than 60 other nations, however, did commit to this common-sense framework to apply the rule of law online and combat cyber attacks, among other goals.

But while more U.S. government and national attention is badly needed, the way to remedy what’s gone wrong with the global internet will not be simply to employ some familiar notion of “regulation.” If we are to build a consensus for this uniquely shared global infrastructure, it will take nuance and mutual global consultation of a type we’ve rarely seen, ever. Only the two 2015 agreements on the SDGs and the related Paris agreement to combat climate change serve as even partial models, primarily because they were truly global. Arriving at effective net governance will take a new concord of countries, companies, and civil society, including the world’s engineers, economists, and other leaders.

It is important to see the interconnections between the pushback against online corporate power and anti-democratic government manipulation. They weave in and out of one another. For example, corrupt governments exploit poor governance in platforms like Facebook or YouTube to manipulate their people, and Facebook and Google eagerly seek to re-enter the Chinese market. Frighteningly, there are increasing instances where the companies and the autocrats work in tandem, compounding the dangers. The Chinese government pushes to advance national hero telecoms maker Huawei, so it can dominate physical net infrastructure, increasing risks of manipulation. Facebook and Google “obey the law,” even when governments like Vietnam’s, for example, demand they take down content simply because it offends the regime.

Until recently we thought the internet was here to stay. But if we are going to retain its extraordinary social, economic, and democratic power, we must push back against these huge threats. This debate and effort must begin now.

We’ve been tackling these matters here at Techonomy for several years. For example, sessions on Internet Giants and the World, at Techonomy 2016; Reckoning with the New Hegemonists and What is Authority in a Networked, Artificially Intelligent World? at Techonomy 2017; and Can Facebook Recover? at Techonomy 2018. And from now on this theme will be even more central at our conferences and in our journalism.

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