Flashpoints

Internet fragmentation & the next 100 years

wrote about Australia a few weeks ago; I called their recent legislation a “spectacular regulatory misfire.”

In case you missed it:

  1. Australia proposed a law that demanded “platforms”1 like Google or Facebook bargain with media companies over the value of news content.2

  2. Google threatened to stop serving search results in Australia. Then they capitulated.3

  3. Facebook went ahead and blocked news sources in Australia. Inadvertently, this effectively turned off news in the South Pacific (think Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu…).4

  4. Australia and Facebook struck a compromise, and now the news is back on.

I’m not here to critique the law.5 I’m here to say that this law, and the incidents around it, are flashpoints in a larger, ongoing conflict over who controls the Internet. This conflict will probably continue for the next fifty to one hundred years.

Right now, the US dominates the global Internet. Australia found an opening to challenge that dominance. I mean, what's Biden going to do about this, sanction Australia? No. Australia’s parliament did the most effective thing it could get away with.

This kerfuffle will not be the last time we see a country (or a group of countries) attempt a similar power challenge. It's certainly not the first time.6 And this Australian law provides a model by which other countries can challenge US dominance over the Internet, too.

Here's my prediction: over the next few years, these flashpoints of conflict will become more visible, more frequent, and hit closer to home. Maybe an app you like will become suddenly unavailable to you. (If you're an American who trades cryptocurrency, you're already living in this future).

My prognosis

The bad news: this skirmish between Australia and Facebook splintered the Internet dramatically for a minute—especially in post-colonial South Pacific countries, where its impact was comedically disparate. We’ll probably see this movie again.

The potentially good news: the larger conflict in which this skirmish takes place—the battle over control of the Internet—could lead to a more robust Internet in time. It could reduce the concentration of raw power in a single jurisdiction, increasing power-sharing and making the Internet less fragile.

However, these flashpoints could also create a lot of uncoordinated, short-term chaos.7 Imagine all the FANG stocks shedding their value at once. And there’s no guarantee the long-term outcome will be better than what we have. This whole conflict could lead to yet another hegemonic Internet, just one that somebody else owns.8

Here are the burning questions in my mind:

  • How do we make these flashpoints as peaceful as possible?

  • How do we prevent countries like Fiji from getting hurt in proxy wars—or simply from ending up as collateral damage in other countries' conflicts?

  • How can national alliances steer the Internet cooperatively toward the goals they share?

  • Will the Internet just become someone else's hegemony?

These are questions for another day. The problem is that we don’t have good tools for answering them. We need new models—analytic and predictive models—to help us.

In other news…

Jeremy Gordon and I published a blog post on “Google Fuzzing”—the idea that, by injecting some random noise into your search queries, you can get good enough utility from recommender systems while still preserving good enough privacy.

Footnotes

1

Gillespie, Tarleton. "The politics of ‘platforms.’" New media & society 12.3 (2010): 347-364.

4

Since many South Pacific countries have weak net neutrality laws, they can only access news through Facebook. Facebook itself runs this program. The move would have cut off news outlets in Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/19/facebooks-australia-ban-threatens-to-leave-pacific-without-key-news-source

5

I probably spoke too soon when I called the law a spectacular misfire. Matt Stoller writes positively about its impact on antitrust. I think the law's actual impact is unknown right now, and we'll probably only understand that impact in retrospect. But it’s certainly possible that the law will achieve policymakers’ domestic goals.

6

See: the EU requesting browsers automatically accept European CAs. Browsers refused, and the gambit failed. But remember, browsers could refuse: major browsers are all produced by US companies. That may not always be the case.

7

A declining hegemonic power, and the resulting transitional period of power-jockeying, is usually a bad time. See The Weary Titan (Friedberg, 2010).

8

Or maybe by two great powers.