It feels like the Internet and the World Wide Web are one and the same. You can find almost any website anywhere in the world with a few clicks of a keyboard and a mouse. Take note, however: Those days may be coming to an end.
In an article in the current issue of The Atlantic, Gordon Goldstein says the days of the free-wheeling, go anywhere (virtually) anytime Internet are numbered. That’s a shame, because the global network has been a major economic driver for many nations worldwide. Goldstein notes that between 2005 and 2012, growth in the digital economy grew 18-fold. The global flow of goods, services and investments, which reached $26 trillion in 2012, could hit $26 trillion in 2025. A number of forces, however, are conspiring to impede growth and connectedness. Instead of the Internet we know, we could be heading toward what Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt is starting to call the “splinternet.”
Here’s what’s going on:
- Today’s Internet is largely private and commercial, even though it traces its history back to ARPANET, the first-generation Internet developed by the Department of Defense. The United States – especially American business – has played a dominant role in advancing the Internet.Now that Edward Snowden disclosed the surveillance programs of the National Security Administration, many large countries have expressed outrage and are no longer willing to let so much data travel through American servers and facilities as they make their way to their final destination. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has called for the European Union to create its own regional Internet, walled off from the United States.
“Anxieties over surveillance … are justifying governmental measures that break apart the World Wide Web,” according to Anupam Chander and Uyen Kazakhstan, two legal scholars at the University of California-Davis.
- Autocracies such as China, of course, have long regulated the flow of Internet data. Many other countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe are following the same course.At a United Nations conference in Dubai in 2012, 89 countries approved an agreement that calls for a UN agency to play a larger role in Internet governance. The United States and 54 other nations refused to sign on, but the effort will continue. The UN agency will meet this fall to define its role, including its potential authority to recommend Internet regulations.
American University professor Laura DeNardis believes that one potential outcome of direct government involvement is that many nations will try to require that any content providers transmitting data between countries will have to pay a user fee for the receiving country’s network. This would undermine the current economic model of the Internet.
- Fragmentation could also reduce the reliability and security of the Web for ordinary users. Two years ago, a number of nations tried to remove the domain-naming function from U.S. legal oversight and put it elsewhere, possibly with the UN. The Department of Commerce has said it is willing to give up control, but only if no government-led or intergovernmental organization takes its place.If nothing is worked out, many countries or blocs might try going it alone, which could cause competing or duplicate website names. It would be much more likely that users could wind up at sites they don’t want, including fraudulent sites that mirror legitimate ones.
Some experts believe we could end up with a European Internet, a Chinese Internet, and Iranian Internet and many more, all with different content regulations and trade rules and possibly with different operating standards and protocols. Eli Noam of the Columbia Business School thinks this is inevitable.
The U.S. government is fighting the march toward these changes, but the economic and political forces are strong. Also, many believe that after the NSA surveillance scandals, we can no longer lead on the issues; too many nations distrust us. And of course, many totalitarian governments want nothing to do with an easily accessible Internet filling the heads of their citizens with ideas of freedom and putting political organizing tools at their fingertips.
It seems as though, no matter the medium, specialization and fragmentation are inevitable. We once had major, general-audience magazines, but they were blown away once every interest and hobby got its own. We once had three major networks, and now there’s a cable channel for every taste, interest and political persuasion.
So, enjoy the World Wide Web while you can. Its days may be numbered.