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Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Internet Governance

The Internet seems a fixed and permanent part of our world. Indeed, its importance during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted its centrality as critical infrastructure for government, commerce, work, education, socialisation and many other areas of life. Yet it is a surprisingly delicate mix of systems, protocols, standards, hardware and organisations, in the public, private and NGO sectors. It is in a state of permanent evolution, and there are many different political views of what it should be like.

Wendy Hall and Kieron O’Hara have been investigating how the Internet is governed, in a series of articles culminating in a book to be published by Oxford University Press in 2021, Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics and the Governance of Cyberspace. See also:

The book describes the Internet, and how Internet governance prevents it fragmenting into a ‘Splinternet’.

Four opposing ideologies about how data flows around the network have become prominent because they are (a) implemented by technical standards, and (b) backed by influential geopolitical entities. Each of these specifies an ‘Internet’, described in relation to its implementation by a specific geopolitical entity.

The Four Internets are:

  • The Silicon Valley Open Internet, developed by pioneers of the Internet in the 1960s, based on principles of openness and efficient dataflow;
  • the Brussels Bourgeois Internet, exemplified by the European Union with a focus on human rights and legal administration;
  • the DC Commercial Internet, exemplified by the Washington establishment and its focus on property rights and market solutions;
  • and the Beijing Paternal Internet, exemplified by the Chinese government’s control of Internet content.

These Internets have to coexist if the Internet as a whole is to remain connected.

The book also considers the weaponization of the hacking ethic as the Moscow Spoiler model, exemplified by Russia’s campaigns of misinformation at scale; this is not a vision of the Internet, but is parasitic on the others. Potential future directions of Internet development are considered, including the policy directions that India might take, and the development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart cities, the Internet of Things, and social machines.

Related articles

The Internet is changing daily, as we all use it and shape it to our needs. But politics, economics and even crime change it as well, as these visions clash in global power politics.

You can read some of the stories in recent days or weeks that testify to that flux here.