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Who Controls the internet?

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Rory Daniels who is an MSc Global Politics student at LSE and a Global Youth Task Force member at Amnesty International.

Today, most people seeking the answer to a burning question begin on Google. Why wouldn’t you? It’s quicker than going to the library, cheaper than buying a book, and far less embarrassing than posing a stupid question to a real person. Unfortunately, however, most of the search engine’s information is about as reliable as Wi-Fi on the tube. Just take the question of who controls the Internet. A quick Google search will produce a plethora of results, from Bill Gates and China to the US and the Illuminati. Maybe it’s Google themselves? But they wouldn’t actually admit it… would they?

Thankfully, Internet scholars take a (slightly) more nuanced view than “large corporations or lizard people”. Some, known as technological determinists, assert that it’s both engineers and the lines of computer code they write that govern. This is because these complex algorithms “determine” how people behave online. Others, referred to as realists, believe that nations and their governments pull the strings. After all, no other actor can physically coerce Internet users through threatening arrest or imprisonment. A third group of theorists claim that a wide range of actors play a part in the Internet’s governance. These include civil society organisations, standards-setting bodies, governments, international institutions, and private companies.

So, which theory is correct? My master’s dissertation seeks to answer this exact question. I do this through employing a technique known as Process Tracing. This essentially involves telling the story of the phenomenon under investigation and, whilst carefully reconstructing this historical narrative, identifying the causal mechanisms that underpinned it. In order to better understand the nature of the Internet’s governance, I utilise two metrics: the degree of Transnationality or Nationality, and the degree of Networking or Hierarchy. Finally, I employ the technique of Periodisation to distinguish three distinct periods in the history of Internet governance. I argue that only by recognising the unique features of each period can we begin to answer the question of who actually controls the Internet.

Throughout the Cyber-Liberalism period (1969-1996), the Internet essentially governed itself. The technology was created through a research project run in collaboration between the US government and a handful of universities based in California. At this point, the Internet was nothing more than a handful of house-sized computers struggling to send data between them. Still, any decisions taken regarding its governance were made by the network of engineers developing it, as opposed to politicians or bureaucrats. In other words, Internet governance was characterised by the philosophy of technological determinism. However, following the Internet’s rapid commercialisation in 1996, this all began to change.

In the Cyber-Paternalism period (1996-2010), nations started to regulate cyberspace. This realist era began with the creation of ICANN – a US-based organisation that was tasked with managing the Internet’s global system of domain names – and quickly snowballed into a free-for-all of small, large, authoritarian, and democratic nations all vying to control the online world. In the face of harmful or illegal Internet content, many decided to either block access through filters and servers or opt for more unconventional approaches. Myanmar, for example, prohibited the ownership of modems until 2002, whilst a few years earlier Cuba banned the sale of personal computers altogether. Nations even played a key governing role within international organisations. Launched in 2005, the Internet Governance Forum saw the likes of China and Russia speak up against US Internet dominance, ultimately (and unsuccessfully) calling for ICANN’s powers to be transferred to the UN.

The final period – that of Cyber-Corporatism (2010-2020) – has seen the rise of the private Internet corporation. These often take the form of platforms, which since the start of the century have exploded in popularity. As of April 2007, approximately 20 million people used Facebook at least once per month. By 2020, this number had surpassed 2.5 billion. That’s without including the company’s other two apps, Instagram and WhatsApp. Today these monopolistic monoliths are gaining control of almost every aspect of the Internet: from its servers and undersea cables to its satellites, engineers, and online public spaces. It’s now clear that what began its life as a simple transnational network has since become more centralised, commercialised, and hierarchical than even its founders could have imagined.

Looking ahead, in 2020 the EU, UK, US, and China all plan to pass landmark legislation that promises to drastically alter how nations deal with harmful or illegal Internet content. In my dissertation I theorise that this may result in the start of a new period – Cyber-Supplementarism – in which nations and private companies govern the Internet in tandem. Importantly, however, I will not be following such developments closely, as after this dissertation is submitted, I plan on never seeing the word “Internet” ever again.

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