The internet is changing. As we spend a greater proportion of our time online than ever before, debates over net neutrality, access, ownership, and privacy have entered the realm of public discourse. Meanwhile, one of the most significant shifts in the digital world in past years has been the slow and subtle move from the wide-open and unregulated web to semi-closed platforms. This development is setting up the potential for a low probability, high impact wildcard scenario of closed networks and restricted access – a closed internet. The idea of a closed internet refers to a potential future where government bodies control the internet connection for a specified population — or where digital corporations have so much influence on the flow of the web through closed app ecosystems that they might as well control it.
A Brave New World
In many ways, the internet is still in its infancy. We have yet to figure out its desirable form and function, despite the immeasurable impacts and changes it has already had on our lives. By any measure, the internet is the biggest experiment in social anarchy the modern world has ever experienced, and its development in the future raises several questions. Do we expect our online experiences to be an extension of offline living? Should the internet be regulated and controlled in the same way we regulate offline behaviours and activities? Who should be awarded the authority to make such judgments in a global, virtual space with no boundaries?
Owning the Internet
Consider the internet in China, which looks remarkably different from what users are used to in other parts of the world, such as Europe or North America, in terms of both content and user experience. The Chinese ruling party has taken significant steps to own the channels, most foreign technology companies are banned from operating there, and government censorship online is widespread. In China, the internet is designed to promote traditional Chinese values, protect citizens from the rampant individualism of the West and, perhaps most importantly, allow state authorities to monitor and control how their citizens communicate. The Chinese version of the internet has been operating as somewhat of an isolated network since its inception, giving rise to its own unique online culture that is contextually situated. It is different than the ‘Western’ internet, and to outside observers it is far from open. Yet, in some ways at least, the open and unregulated internet is heading in the same direction. Could the Chinese way be a model for what’s to come?
Controlling the Ecosystem
Several jurisdictions and NGOs have declared that they consider access to the internet as a fundamental right, due to its profound impact on quality of life and the socio-economic advantages it provides. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a non-binding resolution which condemned intentional disruption of internet access by governments. The resolution rests on the idea that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, and that states have a responsibility to ensure citizens have access to the internet to exercise their other rights, like freedom of expression.
Some countries have gone as far as adopting laws that require the state to ensure that internet access is made broadly available to the population or that prevent restricting an individual’s access to information and the internet. Already, in 2010, Finland passed a law that ensured every citizen access to, at the very least, a one-megabit per second broadband connection. In 2015, the minimum speed was expanded to 100 Mbit/s in.
The internet has been a democratizing force that has empowered neglected segments of the population and reduced informational asymmetries. Today, however, the argument could be made that the internet is becoming less of a vast open web of information and ideas, and more about a curated user experience that prioritizes convenience. We are no longer satisfied with searching and finding, but prefer receiving tailored and targeted messages, products, services, and other offerings.
Perhaps then a more likely direction for a ‘Western’ internet, that doesn’t involve the blatant state control of the Chinese model, is towards an increasing number of closed ecosystems owned by carrier or service providers who maintain authority over the rules of engagement, applications, content, and media. Take Facebook with its almost 2 billion users: in terms of sheer time spent, of habituation, user loyalty and experience, the social media platform has in many ways emerged as a parallel world on the internet.
Add to this Mark Zuckerberg’s plans for rolling out ‘Free Basics’, which is an app that provides mobile users access to Facebook and other essential, pre-selected services or information free of data charges in developing countries. On the surface, Free Basics seems like a benign effort to integrate the world’s poorest into the modern information society, but the plan is considered a controversial move by many. The risk is that this version of the internet will effectively allow Facebook and its partners complete control over what millions (if not billions) of users can access. In India, for example, Free Basics was banned after a groundswell of support for net neutrality – a principle affirming that what you look at, who you talk to, and what you read should not be determined by businesses or governments.
Google too, has successfully made its brand and platform an essential and critical component of nearly all online interactions. It has become so pervasive and embedded within our individual and social psychology it is difficult to imagine any alternative. Managing both traffic and sales through search and advertising, Google has successfully established a monopoly on the web, at least for Western users. For many, Google has become synonymous with the internet.
Life in a Super App
The internet is now being redesigned according to the smartphone model of mobile computing that serves up isolated experiences within self-contained apps. Instead of a free and open internet, we are moving towards an internet that may be more ubiquitous, yet defined by narrow verticals that are controlled by those who own the ecosystems. One of the clearest examples of platform-centricity comes from China in the form of WeChat – the messaging application owned by Tencent.
WeChat is an app that combines e-commerce with real-world services, enabling it to collect a staggering volume of personal data. Within China, WeChat can be used to do almost everything, like pay bills, order a taxi, book a doctor’s appointment, share photos, and chat. WeChat has about 700 million users, and the company knows what they talk about, who they talk to, what their users read, where they go, why they are going there, who is there, how they spend money online, how they spend money offline, and so on. WeChat is not the only one. Chinese giants Baidu and Alibaba also have apps that similarly offer a range of capabilities, and point towards a possible future of a closed internet experienced through just one or a few such ‘super apps’.
The prospect of a closed internet dominated by a few super apps raises important questions around the issues of privacy and surveillance. In China, internet companies are forced to share their user data with the government, creating the conditions for potential human rights violations, such as limiting free speech, censorship, and citizen stalking.
One thing is certain: in a closed internet scenario, the role of data will become exceedingly important. The ability to collect precision data about the behaviours of users in a closed and centralised system will invariably make the internet smarter, and more efficient and convenient for users. These platforms will become even more powerful and effective in controlling the user experience. They will be able to understand and influence user behaviours to a much greater degree and further blur the separation between online and offline worlds to such an extent the boundaries become truly obsolete. But it will also come at a price. Even more than today, the trade-off will be limited personal privacy for increased personalization and efficiency.