What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of tricky questions, but if we are seeking to build a new framework for the internet, we must debate the ones where there are no black and white answers. Though some may be unhappy with the conclusions, reaching consensus is essential. When it comes to something as pervasive as the internet we will have to find a way to reflect the diverse opinions of every section of society and accept that perhaps there will be some uncomfortable compromises.
Here goes with the initial list of questions and I would ask those of you reading this post to add others to build the list out.
Question one: what sort of internet do we actually want?
This is the most obvious, but also the most fundamental question. Since the arrival of the worldwide web many of us (particularly in developed economies) have become accustomed to convenient online services and “free” apps. Yet the same benefits are not available to everyone. Only 3 billion people are online today and access is heavily skewed in favour of people in developed economies. What about the rest? The speed and quality of access varies dramatically, even in the developed world. According to the Office of National Statistics, 11% of UK households have no internet access. Surely we should have resolved universal access to the Internet by now as a basic right in line with the United Nations’ decree?
Question two: how do we police the internet?
The pace of technological change will always leave regulators scrambling to keep up with its impact on the internet and how it affects us as citizens and consumers. Today, though, we appear to be living in a wild west scenario where nation states are using the internet legally to monitor their citizens and conduct cyber-attacks in what could be at best described diplomatically as economic and political espionage. Freedom House has said internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year and two-thirds of internet users live in countries where the authorities use censorship to limit access. And democratic countries are just as guilty of intrusion as supposedly more authoritarian regimes. The Governments of the “free world” have enacted new laws that legalise the mass surveillance that many have been conducting for at least 10 years. If we are to hold nation states to account for their oversight of the internet, then surely we all need to live by the same code of conduct? There has been talk of non-proliferation treaties in the same style as the nuclear disarmament treaty to encourage governments to moderate their behaviour.
However, if the United States officially says it is building an offensive cyber-security capability, then it goes without saying other countries will see that as a green light to follow suit.
Question three: who should be in charge?
We all live in countries with borders. We have passports that say we are British, American, Chinese or South African. And yet the internet has moved rapidly to break down geographic barriers. This has been a good thing in one sense, because it has enabled the sharing of information, such as scientific research for the betterment of everyone. Equally, though, it has allowed hackers to conduct criminal activities from jurisdictions beyond the reach of the law enforcement officials in individual countries. There are also those, who no longer see themselves as represented by their nation state and are using the internet to build new communities. Indeed the dark web and crypto-currencies are creating the potential for individuals to live by alternate social, economic and legal structures. This is of course an extreme alternative, how far do we allow the internet to encroach on traditional national boundaries? And how far do we allow national political agendas to determine the freedoms offered by the internet? What do we do if internet communities no longer want to adhere to the rules of one nation state?
Question four: how do we fix the foundations underpinning the internet?
There are billions of people around the world who are not connected to the internet. Without a physical connection the conversation about the future of the internet is a non-starter. More importantly there are many people around the world, in both developed and emerging economies, who continue to struggle to receive the minimum standards of education to enable them to read and write. Without these basic human rights the internet is pointless for them. Furthermore, there are many individuals without proper documentation. If these people do not exist then how can they participate in the opportunities of access to the internet? Given that cyber threats are so prevalent, if we cannot trust the identities of the people who are using the internet it will create barriers.
Question five: who owns the internet and all the content in it?
The principle of the open web, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, was that people on the internet were outside the control of governments. The Cluetrain Manifesto told companies that they could join their conversations, but that they didn’t have any right to control the conversation. Sadly today’s worldwide web is anything but a reflection of this aspiration. It is big business and that means those with a vested interest will resist change with all their might. Today Google and Facebook receive 65% of all advertising revenue through digital channels. And yet all that revenue is reliant on us surrendering personal information in exchange for services. This is not a fair exchange when you look at the profits the internet mega-brands generate from our data. Should we not have more of a say in how our data is used? Should we not have greater ownership of our data? Or should we accept that intellectual property, copyright and ownership are out-dated concepts? Clearly we cannot expect vendors to invest in technology and products without some form of recompense, but we need to agree that the current economic model is not distributing wealth evenly.