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Enter the 'splinternet': How competing visions for the internet could shape cyberspace

Facebook shown on a laptop screen. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Facebook shown on a laptop screen. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The whistleblower who exposed internal documents from Facebook has gone public.

It’s since given new fuel to old debates about the nature of the internet, like how should it be regulated and who ultimately should be in charge of how it’s run.

“Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics and the Governance of Cyberspace” is a new book tackling these questions. Host Scott Tong speaks with Kieron O’Hara, one of the authors.

Book Excerpt: ‘Four Internets’

By Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall

The Internet appears a fixed part of modern reality. Its roots date back over 50 years, and by the first quarter of the 21st century has become the pre-eminent means of distributing information. To those in their early twenties, it will have been a permanent, if mutable, background to their lives. It seems unquestionable, like electricity and roads. Its design was intended to make it tolerant of disruption and faults, and it is pretty robust and resilient. And it is surely evident by now (our book was completed in lockdown during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic) that it has become a piece of critical infrastructure, and needs to be protected as such.

Yet it is surprisingly delicate all the same, a gossamer arrangement of different types of hardware, protocols to describe how systems communicate with each other, and methods of social coordination, ranging from regulations to contracts to what amount to little more than gentlemen’s (and ladies’) agreements. The Internet is not a monolithic technological creation patented and run by a single company or government, but a congeries of systems, protocols, standards, hardware and organisations. Some of these organisations have national standing, some have global reach, and others have international standing. Some are public bodies, some private companies and some non-profit organisations. The Internet is one of the few institutions where the people round the table are as likely to be in corporate suits and Christian Louboutins, as black t-shirts with hoodies and Air Monarchs, or even (still, just about) tie-dyed denim and bare feet.

This system is furthermore truly sociotechnical – we cannot hive the technology off from the people who use it in their everyday lives. Every design decision reflects, and imposes (perhaps unconsciously), a balance of power, while cultural, economic and political tensions play out across collective-action problems. Neither computer science nor the social sciences are individually sufficient to encompass all the study required to understand the most complex piece of technology ever created, the structure of which is driven by the people who upload, download and link content. We have long argued that concentrated interdisciplinary research, encompassing social and technical studies, is required both to understand it and to engineer it.[1]

The future of the Internet depends on answers to many questions. Most obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely reshaped our relationships with the Internet, and with the wider world. What will the new normal be?

There are political questions, of which the elephant in the room during the time of writing was the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential Election. President Trump’s success or failure in 2020 would have massive influence over the Internet’s future, and that of the technology industry generally. President Biden will certainly govern in a different style, but there may well be aspects of his predecessor’s agenda that he preserves. Other unresolved issues concern the extent to which China will challenge the US for global leadership (it currently heads 4 of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies, including the International Telecommunication Union), and how the EU will work through Brexit, and the post-Merkel era.

The Internet is also co-created by its users, and every year it adds in excess of a hundred million new co-creators. These people will change the Internet in unpredictable ways. Our study of India shows some of the different directions these changes may take.

Finally, there is the technology. The Internet creates data, the fuel for Artificial Intelligence and smart cities, which many see as the future for humankind. Will they produce utopia, or dystopia, or are they merely hype? Other important technological trends include blockchain, automatic face recognition, virtual or augmented reality, undetectable deepfake technology, quantum computing, ubiquitous wireless broadband and medical wearables. Any one of these could have a massive effect on our privacy, public life and wellbeing.

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Excerpted from “Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics and the Governance of Cyberspace” by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall. Copyright © 2021 by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall. Republished with permission of Oxford University Press.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.