A model for the future of the open internet
Hi, it's Ben from the Tony Blair Institute. Today’s edition dives into diplomacy and international negotiation looking at the future of the open internet and what’s needed to preserve the social and economic benefits it brings.
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What lies beneath: Solving the hidden problems of the internet
Dr Melanie Garson
From Vigil to AUKUS, lately there seems to be no shortage of submarine-related events, whether fictitious or real. They are a stark reminder that we don’t always know or really think about what lies beneath. On the surface, a deal is being done, but under the waves and invisible to most of us is years-long secret negotiations with huge global effects.
If many of our politic events can still be described by the old duck metaphor, so too can the internet today. The global network that drives much of the modern world is on the face of it a seamless and ubiquitous force that flows throughout the world. But the governance, technical architecture, standards and protocols are invisible to users, while historically, the geopolitics have also been hidden to leaders. Those who do look closely under the bonnet today will see a creaking, vulnerable system. And if these issues do come to the surface, it will be too late for us to fix them.
The internet ecosystem and its vast economic and social potential is under threat. While our heads are turned towards the more tangible issues from the UK’s Online Harms Bill seeking to regulate content or the proposed European Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act that will reshape competition policy, the network of cables, chips and bits that underpin it all is being unravelled by a clash of fierce global power rivalries.
For policymakers who do see the issues at stake, the future of the internet has been filed in the “super-wicked problem” category. Like the climate crisis, it is seen as an issue for which time is running out, without central authority, exacerbated by those who seek to resolve it, and for which policies discount the future irrationally.
But putting it in this category, effectively placing it in the too-hard basket, limits and disincentivises creative thinking, and can have catastrophic and irreversible effects.
It shouldn’t be this way, and it does not need to be. Technology has the power to solve some of humanity’s oldest problems from resource scarcity to interconnectivity. In order to make this a reality though, we need to see a blend of innovation and a return to problem-solving basics.
In our recent report The Open Internet on the Brink: A New Model to Save its Future we return to the basic tenets of principled problem solving. Inspired by Fisher & Ury’s Getting to Yes and Getting Past No, we provide a new approach and mindset to redirect the future of the internet. Through returning to a classic framework that aims to break the impasses caused by tit-for-tat bargaining, we propose a model that realigns the polarisation in the internet ecosystem with an internationalist mindset reflected in a series of concrete steps to tilt the future towards a more progressive, sustainable, and globally beneficial internet.
It starts with taking a step back.
Currently, each issue affecting the future of the internet is being negotiated individually, not only leading to its erosion, but also preventing states from being able to identify the opportunities for trade-offs and mutual gain. Instead, the internet internationalist mindset requires key actors to “go to the balcony” and to look at the challenge as if standing on a far-off mountain – “a distanced view of close things”. By observing the internet ecosystem in its entirety, from the underwater cables filled with rainbows to the impact of internet shutdowns, a more reasoned evaluation of the knock-on effects of changes in standards or policies on individual parts of the system.
Next, set aside the worldviews and look at the entire problem.
From this vantage point, it becomes easier to see the extent to which decisions may provide short-term satisfaction, but in the long-term reverse those gains and lead to detrimental, irreversible fragmentation.
And it becomes possible to visualise a new range of needs-based solutions that provide incentives for states to work together to protect the internet ecosystem without their core-interests being threatened. They can sit on the same side of the table negotiating the internet to satisfy collective interests – a new “like-mindedness.”
This is not how it currently works, but it needs to - and it should start with D10 countries (G7 + India, South Korea, and Australia) establishing a new Digital Infrastructure and Defence Alliance, which in the long run would be a broader coalition where membership would bring enough benefit in terms of mutual security to incentivise others like Taiwan, Malaysia and LMICs to join. Separating the people from the problem, with a new norm of like-mindedness based on guarantees for shared trade, security and economic interests.
Be open to new creative combinations.
Maintaining a view of the entire internet ecosystem opens new possibilities to consider all negotiations -- from those in technical standards bodies to semi-conductor supply negotiations to the negotiations in regulatory authorities -- as part of one larger package. It expands the pie, providing for the identification and valuing of differential interests so that more opportunities for trade-offs and options for mutual gain can be created. This approach can prevent the co-option of key internet governance bodies to serve a limited set of interests and reduce the risks of fragmentation becoming locked into the internet’s architecture.
But we need to rethink foreign policy strategy and technology diplomacy. State capacity to be able to visualise the constantly shifting complexity of the internet ecosystem and to coordinate its approach across the range of global technology issues, requires that foreign policy strategies are fully digital, data and technology issues into all diplomacy. And they need the creative problem-solvers to implement them. The future of the internet depends on states empowering a new cadre of technology diplomats and ambassadors who can align approaches on foreign policy and technology.
Then, see the gaps – and fill them in.
Stepping back also allows governments and tech companies to see where information may be missing and preventing decision-makers recognising shared interests that can be transformed into opportunities for mutual gain.
It may seem obvious but jointly agreed objective criteria on issues critical to the health of the internet can reduce friction within governance bodies and open more pathways for timely, flexible, and informed creative solutions. A Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Internet Policy (MPIP) composed of nation states, civil society organisations, and industry would provide an early warning system and objective monitoring and evaluation of internet policy.
There is no doubt that the long-term health of the global, interoperable internet is on the brink. But it is wrong to think that the challenges are so great that they cannot be resolved. Looking through the periscope and taking an internet internationalism mindset provides opportunities to find new paths to ensure global access. And given its role as vital social and economic infrastructure in the modern world, it is an issue that those who believe in a free and open internet must take on. Sometimes, when we take a step back – we can move forward.