ES­SAY

Si­mon Yeo­man asks: is it time to reg­u­late the in­ter­net or can it be left to its own de­vices?

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Si­mon Yeo­man asks: is it time to reg­u­late the net or can it be left to its own de­vices?

While the in­ter­net re­mains an over­whelm­ing force for good, a num­ber of re­cent events have led to some very se­ri­ous ques­tions be­ing asked about its fu­ture di­rec­tion and how it could be ‘re­set’ to work in a bet­ter way for ev­ery­one go­ing for­ward. Var­i­ous utopian and dystopian vi­sions of the in­ter­net have been sug­gested and some of these may hinge on the fu­ture role played by the tech gi­ants that are cur­rently dom­i­nat­ing the in­dus­try.

We may look back on this time as the tip­ping point. Gen­uine ques­tions are be­ing raised about how best to man­age the in­ter­net’s chal­lenges, and whether the in­ter­net it­self needs to be re­designed.

There are two ways to ad­dress these chal­lenges: we ei­ther re­form the tech­nol­ogy of the in­ter­net it­self – es­sen­tially re­set­ting it – or we find a way to reg­u­late what we al­ready have. Most likely we will need a com­bi­na­tion of both ap­proaches, so let’s look at these in turn.

SELF- REG­U­LA­TION OR GOV­ERN­MENT IN­FLU­ENCE?

The main ar­gu­ment made against gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion is that it’s hard to reg­u­late some­thing that crosses in­ter­na­tional bound­aries and isn’t cen­trally con­trolled. Other than ICANN (In­ter­net Cor­po­ra­tion for Assigned Names and Num­bers), there are no global in­ter­net authorities that are solely re­spon­si­ble for our in­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence. There is noth­ing an in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ment can do to mean­ing­fully in­flu­ence the in­ter­net, and even those coun­tries that at­tempt to im­pose some lev­els of con­trol or cen­sor­ship can only do so much.

If in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ments can­not im­ple­ment a mean­ing­ful so­lu­tion, per­haps we need a global approach. Could a glob­ally en­dorsed treaty for the in­ter­net be the so­lu­tion, whereby ev­ery coun­try agrees to pur­sue a com­mon in­ter­net agenda? A Paris Agree­ment for the in­ter­net, if you will. While such an agree­ment would be a laud­able achieve­ment, I sus­pect it would be nigh-on im­pos­si­ble to achieve such a tech­ni­cal level of agree­ment among all 193 UN mem­ber coun­tries that could make any mean­ing­ful im­pact.

BUILD­ING A BRAVE NEW IN­TER­NET

So, what would a ‘new’ in­ter­net look like? If we took to­day’s most ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies and at­tempted to build some­thing new – that re­tains all the ben­e­fits of the in­ter­net, while avoid­ing all of the draw­backs – what would that look like?

Many of those who op­er­ate the in­ter­net to­day – and even those who played a ma­jor part in its orig­i­nal de­sign – are at­tempt­ing to an­swer this very ques­tion, with some in­ter­est­ing re­sults.

Sir Tim Bern­ers-Lee, the in­ven­tor of the world wide web, leads Solid, an MIT project that pro­poses de­cou­pling

ap­pli­ca­tions from the data they pro­duce. Solid is both a form of self-reg­u­la­tion and adap­ta­tion of the in­ter­net.

Solid was founded in re­sponse to the grow­ing hege­mony of the big in­ter­net play­ers. Face­book, for ex­am­ple, now has over two bil­lion ac­tive users – it is ef­fec­tively the fil­ter through which nearly two thirds of the world’s in­ter­net users ac­cess the in­ter­net. These plat­forms con­trol much of what is done on the in­ter­net and their plat­forms are ac­ces­sories to the widen­ing prob­lem of ‘fake news’.

The am­bi­tion of Solid is to self-reg­u­late the in­ter­net by chang­ing the way data is han­dled. To­day, most in­ter­net com­pa­nies require you to hand over your data be­fore you use their ser­vices. For ex­am­ple, ev­ery pic­ture you post on Face­book be­longs to Face­book be­cause the com­pany is the one that stores it. By con­trast, an ap­pli­ca­tion built on the Solid in­fra­struc­ture will ask users where they want to store their data – with the ap­pli­ca­tion re­quest­ing ac­cess to it. The cru­cial dif­fer­ence in this sce­nario is that data re­mains in the own­er­ship of the in­di­vid­ual, not the ap­pli­ca­tion us­ing it. While you may de­cide to store your data on Drop­box, it re­mains al­ways un­der your con­trol, and you can pre­vent the ap­pli­ca­tion from ac­cess­ing it at any time you choose.

And this isn’t the only tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion de­vised by those who op­er­ate the mod­ern in­ter­net. In De­cem­ber 2016, Google, Face­book, Twit­ter and Mi­crosoft also un­veiled an in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing ini­tia­tive to tackle ex­trem­ist con­tent on the in­ter­net. They pledged to work to­gether to cre­ate a data­base of unique dig­i­tal fin­ger­prints (hashes) for videos and images that pro­mote ter­ror­ism, so that when one firm flags and re­moves a piece of con­tent for fea­tur­ing vi­o­lent ter­ror­ist im­agery or a re­cruit­ment video for ex­am­ple, the other com­pa­nies can use the hash to re­move the same con­tent on their plat­forms.

An­other tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion to the in­ter­net’s chal­lenge is be­ing de­vised by the tech­nol­ogy re­search com­pany In­terDig­i­tal. Its ICN (In­for­ma­tion-Cen­tric Net­work) pro­poses to elim­i­nate the client-server topol­ogy that is re­spon­si­ble for much of the la­tency and du­pli­ca­tion of data ex­pe­ri­enced across the in­ter­net.

An ICN-based in­ter­net would do away with URLs (Uni­form Re­source Lo­ca­tors) that tell us where on the net­work the in­for­ma­tion is and swap them for URIs (Uni­form Re­source Iden­ti­fiers), which tells us what the in­for­ma­tion is. The con­trast here is that when you want a piece of in­for­ma­tion, you leave it to the net­work to find it. It will more likely be much closer to you than a re­mote server some­where.

The ad­van­tages of the ICN is a re­duc­tion in la­tency – since data would be ac­cessed from a lo­ca­tion much closer to the user – but it can also im­prove trust be­cause it re­moves the abil­ity to use fake URLs, a com­mon tac­tic for de­ceiv­ing users with fake web­sites used for phish­ing at­tacks or dis­tribut­ing fake news. These are two very sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments.

Watch this space

Solid and ICN are just a cou­ple of the pos­si­ble ex­am­ples of self-reg­u­la­tion and tech­ni­cal changes that can be made to the in­ter­net in or­der to re­form it. The heart­en­ing point of all this is that those re­spon­si­ble for the in­ter­net are also the ones look­ing to im­prove it. Self-reg­u­la­tion is al­ready hap­pen­ing.

As vi­sion­ary in­ter­net pi­o­neer, John Perry Bar­low (au­thor of, amongst other things, A Dec­la­ra­tion of the

In­de­pen­dence of Cy­berspace), once said: “[A] good way to in­vent the fu­ture is to pre­dict it.” This might sound slightly naive in to­day’s world, where the free­dom of the in­ter­net is the cen­tre of such a huge on­go­ing debate, but it might just turn out to be true.

Self-reg­u­la­tion might not be a per­fect so­lu­tion just yet, but it is still bet­ter than knee-jerk leg­is­la­tion that could sti­fle cre­ative and com­mer­cial in­no­va­tion and in­fringe upon peo­ple’s civil lib­er­ties.

Through the spirit of open­ness and col­lab­o­ra­tion – prin­ci­ples that are so core to the in­ter­net it­self – I am con­fi­dent that the tech­nol­ogy-led, self-reg­u­la­tion so­lu­tions be­ing pro­posed by those in the in­dus­try will be de­liv­ered far more quickly and ef­fec­tively than any gov­ern­ment-led approach.

The in­ter­net will con­tinue to reg­u­late and redesign it­self. It has never stopped evolv­ing to ad­dress its chal­lenges. By con­tin­u­ing to do so, it will man­age to find its own so­lu­tions.

“Face­book now has over two bil­lion ac­tive users – it is ef­fec­tively the fil­ter through which nearly two thirds of the world’s in­ter­net users ac­cess the in­ter­net”

Si­mon Yeo­man is gen­eral man­ager and fi­nan­cial di­rec­tor at Fasthosts. He is an ac­tive ad­vo­cate for trust and trans­parency in the in­dus­try. Fol­low Si­mon on: @siyeo­man

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