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12 March 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:32am

Inside the race to carve up the free web

As public perception of Big Tech shifts, politicians are developing competing models for the future of the internet.

By Amy Borrett

In the early days of social media, digital platforms were touted as a tool for democracy. The post-election protests in Iran in 2009 were dubbed the “Twitter revolution”, while Facebook proved indispensable in 2011 during the Arab Spring. In recent years, however, public perception has shifted.

“Our collective understanding of these tools has swung on this pendulum from thinking that social media was going to bring about democratisation, to all of a sudden thinking that social media is destroying our democracy,” says Adrian Shahbaz, director for technology and democracy at US non-profit Freedom House. “As governments have understood how powerful these tools can be, we have seen a majority of governments pass laws to regulate them in a way that curtails free expression or increases state surveillance.”

Tech Monitor: GCHQ’s plans to use AI to tackle disinformation raise thorny questions Part of New Statesman Media Group

According to the Freedom House index, the number of countries with a “free” internet has declined by more than a fifth since 2014, while the number of “not free” countries has shot up by almost 50 per cent.

Internet freedom has eroded over time
Number of countries categorised by degree of internet freedom
Freedom House

In some instances, pressure to curb digital power has provided cover for authoritarian regimes to impose further restrictions, but many of the countries with declining internet freedom are in the democratic world. The internet freedom scores of the US, Germany and Australia have all fallen over the past decade. 

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This is the result of a dawning realisation that tech giants are not built to serve the public interest, says Katja Bego, principal researcher on the technology futures team at the Nesta innovation foundation and lead of the Next Generation Internet policy lab.

“The fundamental issue is that these platforms have become at this point like public infrastructure, yet ultimately they serve their bottom line and their own economic agenda,” she says. “They have too much power determining what’s acceptable online behaviour, their editorial policy is almost law because they’re so large.”

The shift in attitudes can be traced back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed how personal data can be exploited for profit at the expense of democracy. In recent months, tensions between nation states and Big Tech has come to a head with the censorship of a democratically elected president and a showdown between Facebook and the Australian government over the funding of news content. 

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Increasing government action is borne out in the data: over the past decade, the number of government requests to remove content from Google have increased more than 1,000 per cent.

Governments are ramping up controls on online content
Number of government requests to remove content from Google

Google

Four competing models of the internet

“We’re losing the internet,” writes Stanford Law School professor Mark Lemley in a new paper. “We’re replacing it with ‘the spinternet’, a balkanised set of computer protocols that increasingly differs by company and by country. That’s not a good thing.”

That view is shared by Wendy Hall, regius professor of computer science at the University of Southampton and co-author of an upcoming book on internet fragmentation, who argues that we should protect at all costs the vision of the internet pioneered by its founders – as open and free and with universal infrastructure and standards. 

“We don’t want to develop standards that will allow states more easily to disenfranchise parts of our communities, or even cut people off from the world,” she says. “We lose those at our peril because if that goes, potentially everything else just comes tumbling down like a pack of cards.”

Tech Monitor: Has China already won the battle for Africa’s internet? Part of New Statesman Media Group

The debate around the splinternet is often simplified along the battle lines of the Sino-American trade war, a fight between the ideologies of the East and the West. But the evolution of internet freedoms is far more nuanced, says Hall, who identifies four different emerging models: the open internet pioneered by Silicon Valley; the EU’s conception that promotes freedom within a framework of data governance; Washington’s commercial vision, where online assets can be monetised by users; and China’s authoritarian, surveillance-based model.

Covid-19 has accelerated this fragmentation, as state and non-state actors exploit opportunities to censor speech and build new instruments for data collection and surveillance. 

Covid-19 has eroded internet freedoms in the developing world
Countries with the largest decline in internet freedoms score, 2019 to 2020

A score of 70 and above is categorised as ‘free’, below 40 is ‘not free’. Source: Freedom House

Governments have had to juggle the digital challenges of the pandemic with upholding civilians’ digital rights – and many have fallen short. The personal details of more than 16 million Covid-19 patients in Brazil were leaked last year, while it has been revealed that data from Singapore’s contact tracing apps has been shared with the police despite assurances otherwise.

India is the emerging digital power

As governments grapple with these issues, the race for cyber sovereignty is accelerating both in those regions pursuing well-intentioned safeguards around digital governance, and in authoritarian regimes – putting democratic values at risk.

The EU has pioneered the digital governance approach. The proposed Digital Markets Act looks to curb the excessive centralisation of power in the hands of a few largely unaccountable digital companies; however, the balance of power lies across the Atlantic, and with Big Tech sourcing less than a third of its revenues from Europe it is unclear how effective it will be.  

“With Europe, the lead on data protection is absolutely laudable but where are the big companies? Not in Europe,” says Hall. “We will potentially go into a world where if you’re a European citizen, you’re cut off from the rest of the internet, because as it regulates it makes it harder for companies to comply.”

But in the future, it will not be Europe, the US or even China that decides the future of the internet. Just over half of the world now has access to the internet, according to the World Bank, and many of the people yet to come online are located in rural areas of Asia and Africa. One key power player will be India, with over 900 million disconnected citizens at present.

“India is this interesting swing state, it’s the biggest democracy in the world but it does have autocratic tendencies,” says Hall. “It has this huge population that means it could be on the scale of China and effectively have its own internet.”

India will play a pivotal role in the future of the internet
Population not yet online (2017)

ITU, World Bank

India has suffered a dramatic decline in internet freedom over the past decade, according to the Freedom House index, which reports that it has introduced more internet shutdowns than any other nation. It is a stark example of the difficulties in policing an open and free internet without compromising democratic principles, says Shahbaz.

Tech Monitor: The US is losing ground to China in the global race for AI leadership Part of New Statesman Media Group

“We risk falling into a knee-jerk reaction and reverting to a mindset that we can ignore the societal conditions that have led to rising disinformation, hate speech and extremism,” he says. “There’s certainly more that can be done to make sure that technology works for democracy, but I think that right now we’re trapped in this moment where our politics is unable to deal with the root causes of some of the symptoms.”