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We take it for granted that the Internet will one day connect every last human on earth. And why shouldn’t we? Just 25 years ago, only three million people worldwide were online. We’ve since connected nearly three billion more to a much faster, more sophisticated, more ubiquitous web. Put another way, if the Internet were a country, it would have grown from the size of Armenia, with no economy to speak of, into the world’s biggest country, with an economy in the top five—and with the prospect of massive growth, as the 4.6 billion people who currently lack web access become connected.
But despite widespread consensus within the United States that a fully connected planet would make the world a better place—with more free-flowing knowledge and less iron-fisted tyranny—that vision of the future is far from guaranteed.
As the Internet matures, it increasingly reflects the personality of each state controlling it, rather than today’s transnational marketplace of ideas (and goods and services, of course). And for the billions without access today, the Internet they find tomorrow may have little in common with the one we know.
“We must get used to the idea that the standardized Internet is the past but not the future,” Eli Noam, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia Business School, wrote in 2013.
China may be the globe’s best-known example of digital censorship, restricting vast swaths of the web from its 649 million Internet users, but its Great Firewall is simply one slice of a broad, evolving, and expanding spectrum of efforts to control the web. While totalitarian states like North Korea and Saudi Arabia are partial to the Chinese model, which simply blocks certain sites, even Western democracies are seeking greater control through other means.
After the European Union passed laws last year protecting net neutrality—the ban on fast lanes for the Internet—its parliament reversed course this spring, granting an ambiguous breed of services higher quality access to the Internet. Meanwhile, the EU is also exploring the idea of a European regional Internet. “One shouldn’t have to send emails and other information across the Atlantic,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Rather, one could build up a communication network inside Europe.”
But while the logic is sound from a privacy perspective, it ignores broader cultural and commercial implications. According to Gordon Goldstein, a scholar of international affairs who has served as an international security adviser to the United Nations secretary-general, it’s not unthinkable to imagine “a future with a Brazilian Internet, a European Internet, an Iranian Internet, an Egyptian Internet—all with different content regulations and trade rules, and perhaps with contrasting standards and operational protocols.”
Though experts like Goldstein lament such a future—as do Internet entrepreneurs and democracy evangelists—they increasingly expect it. “Perhaps it was never realistic to expect the World Wide Web to last,” Goldstein wrote in The Atlantic.
Nonetheless, Internet access was declared a human right by the United Nations in 2011. Meanwhile Facebook and other tech companies are continuing their quest to connect the world. It’s not that anybody doubts that the more than four billion people who still lack access to the web will be better off with it than they are today—it just may look a whole lot different from what we thought.
Next: The Friendly, Slimming Side of Fat