Michael Chertoff is the former secretary of homeland security and current chairman of the Chertoff Group.
History has inflection points; points where the deliberate policy choices of individuals, organizations and nations can put us on a course toward human betterment or folly.
We are now, once again, at one of those points in time. The internet is at a crossroads. Most of us use the network every day without much thought to how it works, let alone how it functions at a deeper technical level. We exist in blissful ignorance of how just a few wrong choices (or even sins of omission) can lead to a fundamentally different internet for all. But the face of the network of networks could soon turn from a welcoming smile into something far more forbidding.
The Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) was launched in 2014 by two think tanks—the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chatham House—to figure out where current trends will take us, where we actually want to go and how we can get there.
The Commission’s newly released report, One Internet, points to three possible future scenarios. Scenarios are always abstractions of reality, but they do help to crystallize the mind around the possible future. The outlook at this stage is not great, but there is hope.
One scenario is marred by crime. In this instance, the network effectively becomes a force magnifier for criminals, who mean harm to ordinary internet users, business and even national governments. Already, one estimate places the potential costs of cybercrime as high as $2.1 trillion per year by 2019. Another study estimates that the annual costs of cybercrime could actually surpass the benefits of connectivity globally in the next few years.
In this scenario, ordinary citizens have their private information stolen; businesses are hacked and their secrets are dumped online; child abuse sites proliferate on the dark web; and national governments struggle in vain to literally keep the lights on as hackers, criminals and terrorists target critical infrastructure through the internet.
This scenario could well happen if governments, businesses and individuals ignore basic digital security and hygiene. Risks will proliferate if the internet of things rolls out without proper security measure baked in at the time of development and if nations refuse to strengthen cybersecurity by sharing information about zero-day vulnerabilities that could be used to improve the strength of IT systems around the world.
None of us want this world. Ironically, even the criminal who would exploit networks in the short run would soon find the system left fallow with nothing to steal as users stop using the internet.
A second potential scenario is one of uneven and unequal gains. In the 2016 World Development Report, the World Bank pointed to the fact that already the internet is producing winners and losers. Old sector jobs are disappearing, but the new jobs that are being created are both far more specialized and often far fewer in number. Wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands as a result. We see one result in the rise of populist anger across much of the globe.
This scenario is also set to become even more pronounced if nations continue to pursue what are known as data localization requirements, which effectively stipulate, in their simplest manifestation, that all data generated by the citizens of country X must stay in that country. The internet is efficient precisely because data flows by the quickest possible route. Regulating and constraining where data must go will be costly for all. We are on a straight shot towards this second scenario.
New technological developments such as driverless cars or 3D printing are set to further the divide between those who are able to participate productively in society and those who are not. The infrastructure that underpins the internet is not fully distributed in all parts of the world. Several nations are also already proposing data localization rules, with some even going so far as to draft plans for their own local internets that would be hived off from the rest of the world. Many of the same nations, but others too, are also imposing strict censorship rules that restrict the free flow of data around the world. As economic research compellingly shows, free data, like free trade, tends to produce large economic windfalls. Those nations that limit the flow of data hurt themselves a lot, but they hurt everyone else as well.
The third scenario, and the one most favored by the Commission for obvious reasons, is one in which the economic, social, educational and liberating potential of the network is unleashed and shared to its fullest degree. The world will never be perfect, but it can be made better. An internet that is safe, secure, trustworthy and inclusive of everyone who wants to participate is most likely to generate large economic surpluses, promote human rights and development, improve the efficiency of our lives and bring new answers to old questions like how to cure cancer through the potential of big data, to name but a few.
This scenario is only possible if governments, technologists, private companies and even ordinary internet users work together. Governments need to restrain themselves (particularly when it comes to wantonly collecting private data), but they also need to restrain others (such as companies, criminals and ordinary internet users).
Private companies need to continue to innovate, but they need to recognize that innovation now needs to include privacy and security by design. Anything less simply leaves the world too vulnerable to a potential future deeply mired in crime. Private companies also need to work to check the excesses of governments, as major U.S. tech firms like Microsoft and Apple have already done in various legal battles.
Ordinary internet users, for their part, are often the final and usually the best line of defence when it comes to internet-based crime. People need to recognize that cyberspace can be dangerous and that they need to act appropriately. The needed actions are not large, but they are unfamiliar to most. Even changing your password regularly or avoiding opening attachments from strangers can be immensely valuable protections.
Together, we can all work towards an internet that is safe, secure, trustworthy, and inclusive of all who want to use it. The internet has tremendous potential, but that potential’s dark side is just starting to rear its ugly head. We need to act now. We can do better. We must do better.