Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance

CIGI Paper No. 206

December 7, 2018

The internet — a fragile construction of hardware, software, standards and databases — is run by an ever-expanding range of private and public actors constrained only by voluntary protocols and subject to political pressure. The authors describe four emerging views of how best to govern the internet, each playing a geopolitical role and championed at the national level.

The first, the Silicon Valley open internet, reflects the idealism of the internet’s creators, who engineered it to be open, with transparent standards and portable, extensible and interoperable data and software, and also to scale as it grew.

European nations, and the European Commission, champion a second model — a “bourgeois” internet, where trolling and bad behaviour are minimized and privacy protected, possibly at the cost of innovation.

China and many other nations see a third, authoritarian internet, where surveillance and identification technologies help ensure social cohesion and security.

The fourth and more commercial view, characteristic of the US Republicans in Washington, DC, understands online resources as private property, whose owners can monetize them and seek market rates for their use.

The competition to establish which, if any, of the four internets will prevail (however temporarily) is likely to be strong, and not always focused on win-wins. Further, the internet’s openness is a vulnerability that can be exploited for misinformation or hacking, an opportunity taken by Russia, Iran and North Korea, among others. The authors argue we need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.

About the Authors

Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton, UK. His interests are in the philosophy and politics of digital modernity, particularly the World Wide Web; key themes are trust, privacy and ethics. 

Dame Wendy Hall, DBE, FRS, FREng, is Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK, and an executive director of the Web Science Institute at Southampton.