The Four Internets

Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall authored a paper for the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) looking at Internet data flow from country to country. CIGI is a non-partisan think tank that looks at issues related to multilateral international governance. They explore policies in many areas that are aimed at finding ways to improve international trade and the exchange of ideas. The group was founded by donations from the founders of Blackberry and Rim, matched by the Canadian government.

O’Hara and Hall argue that there are four separate models of the Internet operating in the world today. These models differ in the way they view the use of data:

Silicon Valley Open Internet. This is the original vision for the Internet where there should be a free flow of data with little or no restrictions on how data can be used. This model favors Tor and platforms that allow people to privately exchange data without being monitored.

Beijing Paternal Internet. Often also referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the Chinese Internet closely monitors internet usage. Huge armies of censors monitor emails, social media and website to search for any behavior not sanctioned by the state. The Chinese government blocks foreign apps and web platforms that won’t adhere to their standards. Other authoritarian countries have their own walled-off version of the Beijing model.

Brussels Bourgeois Internet. The European Internet favors the open nature of the Silicon Valley Internet, but then heavily regulates Internet behavior to protect privacy and to try to restrict what it considers to be bad behavior on the Internet. This is the Internet that values people over web companies.

Washington DC Commercial Internet. Washington DC views the Internet as just another market and fosters hands-off policies that essentially equate to zero regulation of the big web players, favoring profitability over privacy and people.

The authors say there may be a fifth internet model emerging, which is the Russian model where the government actively uses the Internet for propaganda purposes.

These various models of the Internet matter as world commerce continues to move online and we have growing volumes of  data exchanged between countries. We are now growing to a point where the different models are conflicting. Simple things, like the nature of the personal data that can be recorded and exchanged with an ecommerce transaction are now different around the world.

We are already seeing big differences arise for how countries treat their own data. For example, the Chinese, Russians, and Indians are insisting that data of all kinds created within the country should be stored in servers within the country and not easily be shared outside. That kind of restriction equates to the creation of international boundaries for the exchange of data. This is likely to grow over time and result in international commerce flowing through some version of data customs rather than flowing freely.

The paper asks some interesting questions on how we resolve these sorts of issues. For example, could there be some sort of international global data space for e-commerce, which would be treated differently than the exchange of other kinds of data?

The issues highlighted in the paper are real ones that are likely to start making news over the next few years. For example, the Chinese shopping site Alibaba is poised to offer a serious challenge to Amazon in the US. Considering the concern in the US of espionage by Chinese firms like Huawei, will the US somehow restrict a Chinese firm from conducting e-commerce within the US (and gathering data on US citizens)? Multiply that one example by hundreds of similar concerns that exist between countries and it’s not hard to picture a major splintering of the international Internet.