Four Internets, book review: Possible internet futures, and how to reconcile them

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Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics, and The Governance of Cyberspace • 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 expansive enough to include both the belief that the emerging social cyberspace could not be controlled by governments and the belief that it was constantly under threat of becoming fragmented. 

Twenty-five years on, concerns about fragmentation — the ‘splinternet’ — continue, but most would admit that the Great Firewall of China, along with shutdowns in various countries during times of protest, has proved conclusively that a determined government can indeed exercise a great deal of control if it wants to.  

Meanwhile, those who remember the internet’s beginnings wax nostalgic about the days when it was ‘open’, ‘free’, and ‘decentralised’ — qualities they hope to recapture via Web3 (which many argue is already highly centralised). 

The big American technology companies dominate these discussions as much as they dominate most people’s daily online lives, as if the job would be complete after answering “What’s to be done about Facebook?”. The opposition in such public debates is generally the EU, which has done more to curb the power of big technology companies than any other authority. 

In Four Internets: Data, Geopolitics, and The Governance of Cyberspace, University of Southampton academics Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall argue that this framing is too simple. Instead, as the title suggests, they take a broader international perspective to find four internet governance paradigms in play.

These are: the open internet (which the authors connect with San Francisco); the ‘bourgeois Brussels’ internet that the EU is trying to regulate into being via 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 can access. 

You can quibble with these designations; the open internet needed many other locations for its creation besides San Francisco, but the libertarian Californian ideology dominated forward thinking in that period. And where I, as an American, see Big Tech as creatures of libertarian San Francisco, it’s in Washington DC that their vast lobbying funds are being spent. Without DC’s favourable policies, the commercial internet would not exist in its present form. O’Hara and Hall are, in other words, talking policy and ethos, not literally about who created which technologies or corporations. 

Much of the book outlines the benefits and challenges deriving from each of these four approaches. Each provokes one or more policy questions for the authors to consider in the light of the four paradigms, and emerging technologies that may change the picture. A few examples: how to maintain quality in open systems; how to foster competition against the technology giants; whether a sovereign internet is possible; and when personal data should cross borders. None of these issues are easy to solve, and authors don’t 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 take the best from each of these approaches. Compromise will be essential, because the authors’ four internets are not particularly compatible.

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