It’s no secret that many of the organisations involved in governing the Internet have had a strong involvement with US interests, both public and private. The Internet started as a US military project, and that country remained influential in key decision-making bodies, but most importantly, the Internet grew out of an early infrastructure dominance, which led most of the Internet giants to be also based in the US. Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are all American.
In 2012, this dominance seemed to be coming under threat. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN body dealing with telecommunications, was accused of wanting to take over Internet governance. Dozens of articles were written at the time telling of us the dangers of a UN-led Internet governance model that would give increased voice to countries such as Russia, China and Iran on the decisions that shape the global network. An alliance of public and private US interests raised the alarm, and in the end nothing changed.
I have been thinking quite a lot about that era, the golden age of Cyberspace, a time before Snowden; a moment before Wikileaks became toxic; the age where the Internet giants were still considered forces for good; the time before fake news, gamergate, the alt-right, Christchurch, and ISIS propaganda. How quaint were our concerns. How naive we were.
The reason why I have been concentrating on that era is because it is the last time the consensus towards an open and relatively self-regulated Internet remained. One by one, the founding principles that led to the modern Internet have been falling apart:
- The global Internet is increasingly becoming a Splinternet, a collection of national fiefdoms sometimes connected to each other, and easily switched off at the first sign of trouble.
- Navigating the Web has become a painful chore of closing pop-ups, clicking on privacy and cookie statements, and massive ads and videos. It is no coincidence that people have been increasingly giving up the Web in favour of apps, unless you have an ad blocker, most commercial websites are unimaginably ugly.
- The intermediary liability regime that protected platforms has its days counted, a combination of laws around the world has been eroding it, and it will soon disappear.
- Platforms are under pressure to provide more invasive moderation, to deploy real-time content monitoring, to remove content and ban users for even the most minor offence, and to sanitise the environments in the name of child protection and anti-terrorism.
- Encryption is once more under threat, with calls to either install backdoors, or to get rid of it altogether.
- The Internet is now synonymous with platforms.
Let’s assume that the strong regulatory push that we are experiencing comes to fruition and increasingly draconian Internet regulation is deployed across the major jurisdictions around the world. A version of the snappening, half of Internet content is removed. Platforms are liable for almost everything in their networks. Content is taken down all across the board. Live-streaming is banned. Obligatory monitoring is imposed. Users are booted off platforms. What happens then?
This is where regulators will find out that they made a very big miscalculation. Platforms are not the Internet. You can regulate and impose every restriction you can think of to the platforms, and events like Christchurch will not be stopped.
The Web is no longer where content is being shared the most, social is the name of the game. And no, this does not mean Facebook or Twitter, where most of the content is being shared is in messaging tools like Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, etc. These interactions are more difficult to regulate, unless you want to go full Chinese and impose even more intrusive controls such as keyword filtering, and even restricting access to specific protocols.
Offensive content will not just disappear. Most offensive content will migrate to less regulated and difficult to remove platforms, and eventually we will have a two-tiered Internet with highly regulated and monitored walled gardens, and a free-for-all Internet. Also expect the Dark Web to get a boost.
An interesting time is coming. Given the political will to regulate the Internet, to be seen to do something, we can expect that the big platforms will bear the brunt of the regulatory assault. But nothing will change at the fringes of the Internet. On the contrary, things could get even nastier as people start navigating towards a more open and free version of the network, where all the problems will continue to reside.
Whatever happens, I suspect that the Internet as we knew it is about to change forever. Or perhaps it already has.