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The invisible Internet

1964 world's fair-RCA_Pavilion-Doug Coldwell.jpgThe final session of this week's US Internet Governance Forum asked this question: what do you think Internet governance will look like five, ten, and 25 years from now?

Danny Weizner, who was assigned 25 years, started out by looking back 25 years to 1995, and noted that by and large we have the same networks, and he therefore thinks we will have largely the same networks in 2045. He might have - but didn't - point out how many of the US-IGF topics were the same ones we were discussing in 1995: encryption and law enforcement access, control of online content, privacy, and cyber security. The encryption panel was particularly nostalgic; it actually featured three of the same speakers I recall from the mid-1990s on the same topic. The online content one owed its entertainment value to the presence of one of the original authors of Section 230, the liability shield written into the 1996 Communications Decency Act. There were newcomers: 5G; AI, machine learning, and big data; and some things to do with the impact of the pandemic.

As Laura DeNardis then said, looking back to the past helps when thinking about the future, if only to understand how much change can happen in that time. Through that lens, although the Internet has changed enormously in 25 years in many ways the *debates* and *issues* have barely altered - they're just reframed. But here's your historical reality: 25 years ago we were reading Usenet newsgroups to find interesting websites and deploring the sight of the first online ads.

This is a game anyone can play, and so we will. We will try to avoid seeing the November US presidential election as a hinge.

The big change of the last ten years is the transformation of every Internet debate into a debate about a few huge companies, none of which were players in the mid-1990s. The rise of the mobile Internet was predicted by 2000, but it wasn't until 2006 and the arrival of the iPhone that it became a mass-market reality and began the merger of the physical and online worlds, followed by machine learning, and AI as the next big wave. Now, as DiNardis correctly said, we're beginning to see the Internet moving into the biological world. She predicted, therefore, that the Internet will be both very small (the biological cellular level) and very large (Vint Cerf's galactic Internet). "The Internet will have to move out of communications issues and into environmental policy, consumer safety, and health," she said. Meanwhile, Danny Weizner suggested that data scientists will become the new priests - almost certainly true, because if we do nothing to rein in technology they will be the people whose algorithms determine how decisions are made.

But will we really take no control? The present trend is toward three computing power blocs: China, the United States, and the EU. Chinese companies are beginning to move into the West, either by operating (such as TikTok, which US president Donald Trump has mooted banning) or by using their financial clout to push Westerners to conform to their values. The EU is only 28 years old (dating from the Maastricht Treaty), but in that time has emerged as the only power willing to punish US companies by making them pay taxes, respect privacy law, or accept limits on acquisitions. Will it be as willing to take on Chinese companies if they start to become equally dominant in the West and as willing to violate the fundamental rights enshrined in data protection law?

In his 1998 book, The Invisible Computer, usability pioneer Donald Norman predicted that computers would become invisible, embedded inside all sorts of devices, like electric motors before them. Yesterday, Brenda Leong made a similar prediction by asking the AI session how we will think about robots when they've become indistinguishable. Her analogy, the Internet itself, which in the 1990s was something you had to "go to" by dialing up and waiting for modems to wait, but somewhere around 2010 began to simply be wherever you go, there you are.

So my prediction for 25 years from now is that there will effectively be no such thing as today's "Internet governance"; it will have disappeared into every other type of governance, though engineering and standards bodies will still work to ensure that the technical underpinnings remain robust and reliable. I'd like to think that increasingly technical standards will be dominated by climate change, so that emerging technologies that, like cryptocurrencies, use more energy than entire countries, will be sent back to the drawing board because someone will do the math at the design stage.

Today's debates will merge with their offline counterparts, just as data protection law no longer differentiates between paper-based and electronic data. As the biological implants DiNardis mentioned - and Andrea Matwyshyn has been writing about 2016 - come into widespread use, they will be regulated as health care. We will regulate Internet *companies*, but regulating Facebook (in Western countries) is not governing the Internet.

Many conflicts will persist. Matwyshyn's Internet of Bodies is the perfect example, as copyright laws written for the entertainment industry are invoked by medical device manufacturers. A final prediction, therefore: net.wars is unlikely to run out of subjects in my lifetime.

Illustrations: A piece of the future as seen at the 1964 New York World's Fair (by Doug Coldwell.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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