30 Years Later, Who’s in Charge of the Internet?

In 1993, when the consumer Internet* was still very much in its fledgling stage, the New Yorker magazine published a now famous cartoon, showing a dog in front of a computer monitor and keyboard, looking at another dog, with the caption: “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” The point was that on this new communications platform, anonymity was built in. You could be whoever you wanted to be. In those early carefree days of connectivity the anonymity led to new forms of interpersonal communication that were, for the most part, good-natured. But as is the case with so much recreational activity, it’s all fun and games, until somebody gets hurt.

And in the past year or so in particular, people feel like they have been getting hurt online: By data breaches, through ethical missteps of the most popular social platforms, and via pernicious information masquerading as news. All this has brought issues of Internet governance, or how the Internet is managed and held accountable, in the broadest sense, to the popular conversation, a set of issues also explored in our 2019 Key Trends Report in the section on Cultivating Trust.

Governing the ungovernable

By definition, a decentralized technology such as the Internet – i.e. nobody ‘owns’ it – is extremely challenging to manage from legal and policy points of view. Furthermore, the nature of the Internet can differ substantially from one country to the next. We may think there’s one Internet, but in fact there are several. “This global resource connects us all, but it is not administered in a homogenous way around the world. Diverging ideologies have created an Internet with stark differences from region to region, and contrasting philosophies within those regions.” These were the words of Byron Holland, CEO of CIRA aka the Canadian Internet Registry Authority, the member-based organization that represents Canada in matters of international Internet policy and governance and also administers the .ca domain, the Internet country code top level domain for Canada.

Holland made this statement as he delivered the opening remarks at the recently held Canadian Internet Governance Forum, a gathering of Internet policy makers, professionals, academics, and advocates whose objective is to safeguard the original vision of a widely distributed, co-operation-enhancing communication platform in the face of threats posed by misinformation, cybercrime, and data and privacy breaches.

CIRA’s recently released report “Canadians Deserve a Better Internet” provides a lens on Canadians’ current views on key Internet issues.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND FAKE NEWS:

• 75% say they come across fake news at least sometimes.
• 57% have been taken in by a fake news item.
• 70% are concerned that fake news could impact the outcome of the next federal election.

PRIVACY:

• 72% are willing to disclose some or a little personal information in exchange for a valuable/ convenient service.
• 87% are concerned that businesses with access to customers’ personal data willingly share it with third parties without consent.
• 86% believe it is important that government data, including the personal information of Canadians, be stored and transmitted in Canada only.

CYBERSECURITY:

• 87% are concerned about a potential cyberattack against organizations with access to their personal data.
• Only 19% say they would continue to do business with an organization if their personal data were exposed in a cyberattack.
• 78% are concerned about the potential security threats related to the Internet of Things.

Canada and Internet governance

Though the players and companies are not household names, Canadians play an important role in the Internet’s operational and governance structures. CIRA, for example, broached online privacy issues years before the European Union instituted the personal data compliance regulations of GDPR. Canada is also home to Tucows, the Internet’s 2nd largest domain registry that issues millions of web domains annually. While delivering the keynote address at the Canadian Internet Governance Forum, Tucows CEO Elliot Noss pointed out that when it comes to global discussions of Internet policy, Canadians are known for being objective, rational actors. “Canadians are diverse by definition,” emphasized Noss.

On a global communications platform defined by heterogeneity, the Canadian perspective is indeed a big plus. It’s also a particularly good fit for dealings with ICANN, the non-profit organization that oversees the provision of the domain names, IP addresses, and root servers for the Internet. “ICANN is the only multi-stakeholder organization in which members sit side-by-side, in a non-hierarchical way, and that’s a fundamentally different approach to governance,” Noss reminded the conference participants.

And though one of the organizations that provides the undergirding for the Internet’s operation and stability is uniquely democratic, the global Internet is not. Outside of the western world a very different Internet exists, one in which information control through website blocking and content censorship is a common technique used by the authoritarian regimes of, for example, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Iran. There are also methods outside of outright site blocking that countries are using to limit information access and curtail free speech. Uganda recently levied what’s being called a ‘social media tax’ on those using their mobile phones to access Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Whatsapp. The fees are billed directly through the mobile operators, and in a country where the average wage is about $100 per month, the hit on the pocketbook was felt almost immediately. In less than 6 months, 5 million Ugandans stopped using their devices to access the Internet.

Bad actors and lessons learned

A more optimistic development in Internet governance can be seen in Canada’s Bill C-76, passed in December 2018. Also known as the Elections Modernization Act, the legislation represents a major turn toward transparency in online advertising, requiring tech companies to keep comprehensive records of the sources of advertising that could in any way be considered political or partisan. In other words, lessons have been learned the hard way from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the associated data harvesting that enabled the creation of psychographic profiles of tens of millions of Facebook users and the serving of biased ads during the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit vote of the same year.

As a result of Bill C-76 as well as a desire to not repeat anything resembling the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Google recently announced it would not be accepting any form of political advertising for the duration of Canada’s upcoming federal election campaign. Said Colin McKay, Head of Public Policy at Google Canada, “We’re focusing our efforts on supporting Canadian news literacy programs and connecting people to useful and relevant election-related information.”

A work in progress

If we compare the Internet of 30 years ago with the Internet of today there really aren’t that many similarities. In the early 90s the Internet was more of a community than a marketplace, defined largely by the ability to publish without needing anyone’s permission, to collaborate across great distances, and to give voice to people and movements that would otherwise go unheard.

But when new communications technologies emerge so do new business models, new types of content, and new user behaviours, most of them unanticipated. That’s how the great open platform for global connectivity, co-operation at scale, and knowledge and information has also become the opposite: a machine for creating discord, division, and chaos.

So is the Internet the greatest thing ever invented, or the worst? The answer, paradoxically, could be yes, to both. Complex problems don’t have simple solutions, and in the opinion of CIRA CEO Byron Holland, the answer won’t lie in any single response, but in a combination of technology solutions, policy solutions, and our own digital literacy and online behaviours. “Canadians cannot remain silent, or get too comfortable,” said Holland. “The Internet we have today can be gone tomorrow if we are not vigilant.”

*In 1989, scientist Tim Berners Lee wrote the protocols that became the World Wide Web. His vision was to design a set of technical specifications such as URLs and HTML to create a more user-friendly way to access a global network of connected computers. Commercial web browsers followed, and tech enthusiasts around the world started logging on to the Internet. No longer would it be confined to universities and academic researchers.

Further Reading:

• The CIRA report titled “Canadians Deserve A Better Internet”
• “Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance”, a report from the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Canadian-based public/private partnership for the study of governance and innovation in the global economy

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