How I think about the future of the internet
and "The internet during world war."
ICYMI - I published a piece in the OCED Forum Network, The internet during world war. Check it out!
What will the internet look like in five, ten years? This post is, in some ways, bound to disappoint you. I cannot answer this question. But I can tell you how I think about it.
Measuring the politics of the internet
The internet is facing twin dangers. On one side, there’s the threat of total consolidation. Power over the internet has been increasingly concentrated primarily in the hands of a few, U.S.-based organizations. On the other side, there’s fragmentation. Attempts to challenge the status quo, threaten to destabilize the internet globally.
I've been using data to understand these dueling risks—how they manifest, and their direction and velocity over time—since 2019. As background: the internet is not one technology but a stack of technologies “layered” on top of each other. This stack starts at the physical—cables running under the ocean. Those cables enable communication protocols, which in turn enable the applications and websites we know and love. On top of those applications exists an overlay of laws and regulations. We use a measure, or proxy, at each layer of the internet stack to understand where, whether, and to what degree the internet is fragmenting at that layer.
Our purpose in doing this is, and always has been, to answer a single question: where is the internet headed?
The internet today
Just as there is no one future, there is no one present. So, to understand this question, let’s first look at today’s internet.
Here is how I think about the types of internets we see in the world today:
We have two axes here. On one axis, there is the number of internets in the world—from one internet to many internets. On the other axis, we have have the globalness of information flows—low, meaning information can only flow locally, to high, meaning information can flow seamlessly worldwide.
The upper left quadrant describes a world with a few internets and a high globalness of information flows. In its extreme, this quadrant would mean there’s exactly one internet, and everyone uses it. I call that quadrant hegemony.
The upper right quadrant describes a world that has many internets but maintains a high globalness of information flows. I call that quadrant sovereignty. In this world’s extreme, there would be many self-sovereign internets—local internets may have local rules, local providers for various services—but they would all interoperate with one another, and data would flow easily between all of them.
The lower left quadrant describes a world in which there are only a few internets, but information doesn’t flow globally between them. I call that world siloes. At its extreme, that world might have a Chinese internet, a U.S.-led internet, and perhaps an Indian-led internet that includes some non-aligned states. Information would flow freely within those siloes, but little if at all between them.
Finally, the lower right quadrant describes a world with many internets and low globalness of information flows. I call this world splinters. In its extreme, this might be a world in which Senegal has its own internet, and Mali has its own internet, and the two don't talk to each other. These internets may be interoperable in theory, but are, in practice, siloed and controlled by large enterprise and central governments
Before we think about where the internet (or internets) is going, let's first evaluate where the internet is today. To think about that, I look at the data we've collected, and for each observation, I ask myself, “in what quadrant does this observation belong?” The answers here are schematic; there is a strong role of intuition in doing this placement, and as such, we take these placements seriously, but not literally.
Here's what I find when I do this exercise:
We live mostly—not entirely, but mostly—with a single internet that everyone shares. A hegemonic internet. There are, of course, some datapoints to the contrary. There are web3 technologies, especially domain naming alternatives, that aspire to separate from but remain interoperable with the DNS root zone. Likewise, we see the beginnings of siloes. The Chinese internet has a high information flow within it relative to the information flow between it and the rest of the world's internet. And, finally, the world is not without splinters. The North Korean internet is effectively a corporate intranet scaled up to the size of a nation-state. Russia has threatened (or rather, promised it has the capacity to enact) similar splintering. Nevertheless, when we zoom out and look at the “big picture” of today’s internet, we see primarily the hegemony story, the single internet that everyone uses.
The internet tomorrow
Now, to the question of where the internet is headed. Here’s how I think about this question. When I look at new data points, new observations, I ask myself: where do they fit? In what quadrant do those new observations belong? Here’s an (again, schematic) view of the picture I find:
This is where we start to see where the internet might be headed. What I take away from this exercise is this: we may be heading away from a hegemonic internet, a world in which everyone shares a single internet, and toward a world of siloes.
This might be a world in which there's a US-led internet, one that interoperates well enough with the way the Europeans govern their internet, but less well with the way the Chinese state governs its internet. Another, non-aligned internet may yet emerge. “March” internets may find a lucrative business in selectively interoperating between silo-led networks.
I suspect this picture will become clearer as U.S.-China conflict develops, and as the Global South continues to come online—countries in which internet pentration is still relatively low but rising quickly, like Kenya, Vanuatu, Uganda, and Tonga. These dynamics will, together, reveal a clearer picture of how these siloes may form, if at all, and whether they will shift the overall story of the internet(s) we live with.
Where should the internet go?
What I’ve described so far is a descriptive analysis. But there’s a normative question hiding in here, too: in what direction should the internet head?
Followers of this blog will know: I believe a more just and stable internet will be, contrary to mainstream assumptions, one in which local control is devolved more to local units. You can learn more about that vision here.
Help me expand and update this work
Finally, I’m interested in expanding this work. Since 2019, I have used data to perform analysis about the future of the internet. I am looking for funders interested in updating and expanding this work for a rapidly changing internet.
Are you interested in funding work like this? If so, please get in touch.
Every five years, the Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity convenes a broad panel of experts to refresh its Cybersecurity Futures, a scenario planning exercise aimed at generating possible futures for cybersecurity in five years’ time. This post stemmed from my presentation at this year’s convening for our 2030 futures. Thanks to Chris Hoofnagle, Andrew Reddie, and the rest of CLTC for inviting me to share these thoughts. Thanks to Pablo Chavez for the feedback on a draft of this piece.
ICYMI - Read my piece in the OCED Forum Network, The internet during world war.