While the internet remains an overwhelming force for good, a number of recent events have led to some very serious questions being asked about its future direction and how it could be 'reset' to work in a better way for everyone going forward. Various utopian and dystopian visions of the internet have been suggested and some of these may hinge on the future role played by the tech giants that are currently dominating the industry.
We may look back on this time as the tipping point. Genuine questions are being raised about how best to manage the internet's challenges, and whether the internet itself needs to be redesigned.
There are two ways to address these challenges: we either reform the technology of the internet itself – essentially resetting it – or we find a way to regulate what we already have. Most likely we will need a combination of both approaches, so this article will look at these in turn.
Self-regulation or government influence?
The main argument made against government regulation is that it's hard to regulate something that crosses international boundaries and isn't centrally controlled. Other than ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), there are no global internet authorities that are solely responsible for our internet experience. There is nothing an individual government can do to meaningfully influence the internet, and even those countries that attempt to impose some levels of control or censorship can only do so much.
If individual governments cannot implement a meaningful solution, perhaps we need a global approach. Could a globally endorsed treaty for the internet be the solution, whereby every country agrees to pursue a common internet agenda? A Paris Agreement for the internet, if you will. While such an agreement would be a laudable achievement, I suspect it would be nigh-on impossible to achieve such a technical level of agreement among all 193 UN member countries that could make any meaningful impact.
Building a brave new internet
So, what would a 'new' internet look like? If we took today's most advanced technologies and attempted to build something new – that retains all the benefits of the internet, while avoiding all of the drawbacks – what would that look like?
Many of those who operate the internet today – and even those who played a major part in its original design – are attempting to answer this very question, with some interesting results.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, leads Solid, an MIT project that proposes decoupling applications from the data they produce. Solid is both a form of self-regulation and adaptation of the internet.
Solid was founded in response to the growing hegemony of the big internet players. Facebook, for example, now has over two billion active users – it is effectively the filter through which nearly two thirds of the world's internet users access the internet. These platforms control much of what is done on the internet and their platforms are accessories to the widening problem of 'fake news'.
The ambition of Solid is to self-regulate the internet by changing the way data is handled. Today, most internet companies require you to hand over your data before you use their services. For example, every picture you post on Facebook belongs to Facebook because the company is the one that stores it.
By contrast, an application built on the Solid infrastructure will ask users where they want to store their data – with the application requesting access to it. The crucial difference in this scenario is that data remains in the ownership of the individual, not the application using it. While you may decide to store your data on Dropbox, it remains always under your control, and you can prevent the application from accessing it at any time you choose.
And this isn't the only technical solution devised by those who operate the modern internet. In December 2016, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft also unveiled an information-sharing initiative to tackle extremist content on the internet. They pledged to work together to create a database of unique digital fingerprints (hashes) for videos and images that promote terrorism, so that when one firm flags and removes a piece of content for featuring violent terrorist imagery or a recruitment video for example, the other companies can use the hash to remove the same content on their platforms.
No more fake URLs?
Another technological solution to the internet's challenge is being devised by the technology research company InterDigital. Its ICN (Information-Centric Network) proposes to eliminate the client-server topology that is responsible for much of the latency and duplication of data experienced across the internet.
An ICN-based internet would do away with URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) that tell us where on the network the information is and swap them for URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers), which tells us what the information is. The contrast here is that when you want a piece of information, you leave it to the network to find it. It will more likely be much closer to you than a remote server somewhere.
The advantages of the ICN is a reduction in latency – since data would be accessed from a location much closer to the user – but it can also improve trust because it removes the ability to use fake URLs, a common tactic for deceiving users with fake websites used for phishing attacks or distributing fake news. These are two very significant improvements.
Watch this space
Solid and ICN are just a couple of the possible examples of self-regulation and technical changes that can be made to the internet in order to reform it. The heartening point of all this is that those responsible for the internet are also the ones looking to improve it. Self-regulation is already happening.
As visionary internet pioneer, John Perry Barlow (author of, amongst other things, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace), once said: "[A] good way to invent the future is to predict it." This might sound slightly naive in today's world, where the freedom of the internet is the centre of such a huge ongoing debate, but it might just turn out to be true.
Self-regulation might not be a perfect solution just yet, but it is still better than knee-jerk legislation that could stifle creative and commercial innovation and infringe upon people's civil liberties.
Through the spirit of openness and collaboration – principles that are so core to the internet itself – I am confident that the technology-led, self-regulation solutions being proposed by those in the industry will be delivered far more quickly and effectively than any government-led approach.
The internet will continue to regulate and redesign itself. It has never stopped evolving to address its challenges. By continuing to do so, it will manage to find its own solutions.
Lead illustration by Kym Winters.