Since its development decades ago by the Defense Department, the Internet has connected computers together in a decentralized, democratic way. Network design was open and transparent, themes built into all of the core protocols that underpin the internet today. The development of the World Wide Web and its later commercial expansion in 1995 connected the world's population like never before, undermining the notion of national sovereignty by creating a borderless environment, accessible by everyone (save for a few select regions and countries).
However, is that level of democracy and openness a permanent feature of the internet, or is it merely a temporary phenomenon before the system devolves in a balkanized network of islands?
We can see the tension today in countries like China, which effectively is already an island of sorts, preventing the importation of undesired content across its borders (it is less clear that there are restrictions the other way - an important point to remember about the internet). The Arab Spring revolutions have shown that authoritarian governments are very much at the mercy of their populations if they have access to modern social networking tools. Furthermore, stories like the one in the NYTimes today that describe efforts by the Obama administration to increase the utility of the internet in undermining these regimes only increases the prominence of the internet's ability to counter dictatorships.
Despite my enthusiasm for the internet (I do work for one of its most successful companies), I agree with the general themes developed by Evgeny Morozov, who believes that there is nothing fundamentally liberating about the internet, and that the technology can easily increase repression rather than weaken it.
We are seeing the slow fragmenting of the internet into separate regions, which will have borders not unlike their physical manifestations on national boundaries. It has become more common for countries to require that certain data remain exclusively within a country, and there is little evidence to suggest that the trend won't accelerate, particularly after the events witnessed this year.
To answer the question of the title, I think the internet will look fundamentally different in 10 years, a system with a complex array of national rules that will diminish its current democratic nature. This is perhaps to be expected given the novelty of the system - the internet's short existence has not provided time for governments to catch up to the societal changes that have been induced by connectivity. However, I do believe we can influence the extent of the fragmentation (perhaps by guaranteeing a fundamental human right to the internet - which some countries have recently enacted), and that is the best hope for salvaging one of the most important inventions in human history.
Posted on June 17, 2011