Is it time to regulate the internet?

By Simon Yeoman

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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 aim’s to self-regulate the internet by changing the way data is handled

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 …read more

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