Four internet browsing, book review: possible internet futures and how to reconcile them


Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics and Cyberspace Governance • By Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall • Oxford University Press • 342 pages • ISBN: 978-0-19-752368-1 • £22.99

The early days of the internet were marked by cognitive dissonance extensive enough to encompass both the belief that the emerging social cyberspace could not be controlled by governments and the belief that it was in constant danger of fragmentation.

Twenty-five years later, concerns about fragmentation — the “splinter net” — remain, but most will admit that the Great Firewall of China, along with the closures in several countries in times of protest, has proved beyond doubt that a determined government exercise a lot of control if it wants to.

Meanwhile, those who remember the early days of the Internet grow nostalgic for the days when it was “open,” “free,” and “decentralized” — traits they hope to recapture through Web3 (many claim it’s already highly centralized).

The big US tech companies dominate these discussions as much as most people’s everyday online lives, as if the job was done after replying with “What to do with Facebook?”. The opposition in such public debates has generally been the EU, which has done more to curb the power of big tech companies than any other authority.

In Four internets: data, geopolitics and the governance of cyberspace, academics Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall of the University of Southampton argue that this framing is too simple. Instead, as the title suggests, they take a broader international perspective to find four internet governance paradigms at play.

These are: the open internet (which the authors connect to San Francisco); the ‘civil Brussels’ internet that the EU is trying to regulate through legislation such as the Digital Services Act; the commercial (“DC”) Internet; and the paternalistic internet of countries like China, who want to control what their citizens have access to.

You can argue with these names; the open internet needed many other locations besides San Francisco for its inception, but libertarian Californian ideology dominated forward thinking during that period. And where I, as an American, see Big Tech as creatures of libertarian San Francisco, it is in Washington DC that their huge lobbying money is being spent. Without DC’s favorable policies, the commercial Internet in its current form would not exist. In other words, O’Hara and Hall are talking about policies and ethos, not literally about who made which technologies or companies.

Much of the book outlines the benefits and challenges arising from each of these four approaches. Each raises one or more policy questions for the authors to consider in light of the four paradigms and emerging technologies that could change the picture. A few examples: how to maintain quality in open systems; how to promote competition against the technology giants; whether a sovereign internet is possible; and when personal data must cross the border. None of these problems are easy to solve, and authors do not pretend to do so.

“This is not a book about saving the world,” O’Hara and Hall write. Instead, it’s an attempt to provide the background and understanding to help the rest of us find workable compromises that make the most of each of these approaches. Compromise will be essential, as the authors’ four internets are not exactly compatible.


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