When I started my first job in the US Congress almost 35 years ago, I helped senators figure out how to expand federal programs for supercomputing and advanced networking. Back then, ‘advanced networking’ meant the National Science Foundation Network, or NSFNET, which connected university researchers to Federal supercomputer labs and to each other. It could, on a good day, transmit up to 56,000 bits per second—your typical Wi-Fi connection is at least a thousand times faster today. That network was designed and run by network engineers to benefit about 100,000 other engineers and scientists, primarily at universities and federal research labs. Managing the internet was easy back then.
A few far-sighted members of Congress and former President George H.W. Bush’s administration understood the potential of this research network. They proposed making it available to anyone who wanted to pay to connect. By 1992, both non-profit and commercial internet service providers connected to the NSFNET and provided service to millions of users outside research communities in the US and beyond. This is how the commercial internet was born.
Evolution of the internet
In those early years, ‘internet policy’ was mainly about funding more people and more institutions (particularly schools and libraries) that wanted to get connected. Policymakers didn’t try to design the internet or determine what users could do. ‘Internet governance’ was left to engineers and standards bodies that determined how bits moved across the net.
But by the late 1990s, the internet had become big business, and the first wave of e-commerce began making online entrepreneurs very wealthy. Politicians in Washington DC and elsewhere enabled the digital economy by removing outdated regulations that stood in the way and by promoting digital signatures and online payments. They were encouraged by the public’s enthusiasm for fast-growing companies such as Netscape, Cisco, Amazon, AOL, and Yahoo, delivering internet connections and new services to consumers and businesses.
But by the 2010s, politicians began to address how the internet was being used for ulterior motives. As a result, legislation was drafted to address issues of online privacy and data protection, online pornography, government surveillance, and unfair business practices. However, the legislation could not keep up with technology and new business models. By 2013, an opinion article in The Economist coined the term ‘techlash’ to describe a growing fear of technology and the disruption it can cause. Politicians responded to internet companies’ growing power and wealth with regulations to constrain or fine them billions of dollars for misusing customer data.
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Rise of the tech titans
They were encouraged by established companies whose business models were threatened by the new “Tech Titans”. These companies fought back by using their influence to encourage legislators to write rules that gave them an advantage. In South Korea, starting in 2016, three major network providers (such as Korea Telecom) convinced the Korean government to provide subsidies to them by forcing many foreign and smaller network companies to pay extra internet connection fees. Today, European telcos are trying to convince the European Commission to establish similar rules and give them control over the services their consumers can access.
In Australia, major media companies convinced the government to impose the so-called ‘Murdoch tax’ on social media companies such as Facebook if they linked to Australian news articles on the web. This kind of rent-seeking by major media companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is threatening the open nature of the internet and limiting the services and information users can access—leading to government-created monopolies and oligopolies that stymie innovative competitors.
Another, even more severe threat to the open and interconnected nature of the global internet is the growing tendency of nationalist politicians to view the digital economy in ‘us versus them’ terms. For the first 20 years of the internet, the ‘share and share alike’ model fed the extraordinary growth of both network capacity and new services. Metcalfe’s Law, named for one of the pioneers of the Internet, tells us that doubling the number of network connections quadruples the power and utility of the network. The pie could grow for everyone. But then companies and countries got greedy—really greedy.
They started to look at China, which has blocked more and more foreign internet companies from serving their citizens, not as an outlier isolated from the innovation of the net but as a model for fragmenting the internet. For instance, today, US companies are lobbying governments worldwide to block the short-form video hosting service TikTok. India, too, has blocked hundreds of such apps from China. These actions can be justified by concerns over data protection, privacy requirements and national security. But as often as not, the major drivers for such initiatives are protectionism and companies seeking competitive advantage. Silly talk of a ‘tech Cold War’ threatens to limit the ability of the next generation of online innovators to reach global markets.
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What policymakers must do
Data is a renewable, reusable resource. You can use it, copy it a million times, and share it so other people can combine it with other data and find new and better uses for it. That’s why the digital economy fundamentally differs from the mid-20th century economy built on finite resources like coal, oil, and steel.
Digital transformation is not just about powerful, new technologies such as machine learning, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s also about new data-driven business models and newer modes of collaboration. Policymakers must adopt new regulatory paradigms so their countries can tap into the super-abundance made possible by digital innovators and their customers.
This will only happen if they stop trying to favour one company over another or think they can grow their nation’s economy faster by isolating it from data and services other countries are using to become more productive and efficient. Instead, they should make empowering their citizens a top priority—giving them access to better digital tools, more ability to share information and data, and ensuring more transparency so they can understand how some governments and companies might take advantage of them.
Just like the first internet engineers who designed the network they wanted to use, today’s users should have the freedom and tools to choose the kind of internet they want.
Michael R. Nelson is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment’s Technology and International Affairs Program, which studies the implications of emerging technologies— including digital technologies, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He tweets @MikeNelson. Views are personal.
The article is part of a series examining the geopolitics of technology, which is the theme of Carnegie India’s seventh Global Technology Summit (29 November to 1 December), co-hosted with the Ministry of External Affairs. Click here to register. ThePrint is the digital partner. Read all articles here.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)