Digital Economy Dispatch #020 -- There is no Internet

Digital Economy Dispatch #02024th January 2021

There is no Internet

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. As I get older it becomes harder to remember those long days (and nights) writing software in Basic, FORTRAN, C++, and COBOL. When the key skills of a coder included finding ways to manipulate in-memory data to save a few bytes and disk drives looked like washing machines (and were just as noisy). The opportunity for widescale connectivity and interconnection between computers was just emerging. Anyone who had the need for remote editing using telephone lines and an acoustic coupler at 300 baud is surely still having the same nightmares as me about the time it took to refresh a 3270 green screen terminal!

And then came the Internet, the World Wide Web (WWW), and the rapid innovation that surrounded it. The basic Internet standards and infrastructure had been created from the 1970s onwards through US government investment in ARPANET and related projects. Then, the great hope of the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN in the early 1990s was to build on this platform to create a universal space that was open and free to all. In those innocent days, the promise of sharing information around the world seemed a big deal. The three underlying technologies of the WWW (HTML, the web’s formatting language; URI, a universal way to name everything; HTTP, the linking and access mechanism) were simple, elegant, and clean. CERN agreed to make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis, forever. We all had such high hopes.

For many of us, that dream is dead. The last few months has reinforced the massive shift that has been occurring to replace that venture with something more commercial, increasingly diverse and fragmented, and the subject of politically-charged manipulation. Whether it is concern about the provenance of information being shared on social media or the commercial practices of Big Tech companies, we face daily news headlines that raise fundamental questions about the directions for our digital economy. Today, there are at least three clear challenges being faced.

The first is that the rapidly growing commercial influence of Internet-connected services is driving both the Internet technology providers and its users to seek to own more of the infrastructure, decide who has access to its use, vary service levels based on commercial interests, and abuse their market power and influence to advantage one set of service providers over another.

Much has been written about the economic power of the Big Tech giants, and their increasing dominance in the current pandemic. Despite growing regulatory focus, the price of the so-called FANG stocks of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (with the addition of Microsoft and Apple) has soared with the realization that these companies have so strong an impact in all our lives. Concerns about misuse of this power are high. It seems as though the next decade will see the on-going rumbling of law suits from organizations such as the US Department of Justice and various institutions across the EU. Their deliberations will have a major influence on the future shape of the digital economy.

Second, we have the continued splintering of the Internet across geographic and political lines. Now often referred to as the “splinternet”, various governments including China, North Korea, Cuba, Russia and others are actively limiting Internet access, banning certain groups of citizens from access, manipulating the information available, removing cross-border sharing tools, and much more. All this is carried out with the aim of controlling and safeguarding their citizens. Perhaps, you may argue, with good reason given the amount of abuse and misuse of the technology. However, the result is that any sense of a global digital marketplace has been lost: The Internet experience for a student in New York or London is far from they will receive in Beijing, Havana, Moscow, or Pyogyang.

Furthermore, the technology that powers the Internet is now increasingly suffering the same geo-political fate. Underlying the information sharing and data processing the Internet provides, are the processors that power it. With over a trillion chips produced last year and their increasing technical sophistication, the manufacturing facilities they require are becoming consolidated within a handful of companies in the US, Taiwan, and South Korea. These companies, strongly influenced by the governments of their respective countries, play a key role in deciding who has access to the latest computing firepower. A significant factor in a digital world where speed matters. Manufacturing facilities, access rights, and distribution channels for the most advanced chips will increasingly determine who leads and who follows in the digital economy.

The third key challenge concerns the broad topic of data privacy, data ownership, and free speech. The initial goals of the Internet and WWW pioneers was to open up research and information sharing across borders. I still clearly recall as a PhD student in Computer Science in the late 1980s how difficult it was to connect with remote colleagues, share research ideas, and find the latest published papers. The progress in ease of communication by the 1990s brought incredible excitement and spurred untold national and international research collaboration. From these roots, much more extensive data sharing and interaction has emerged.

Yet, the rapid deployment of the Internet has brought reliance on the WWW and a host of data-driven services. That success is a double-edged sword. On the one hand this has been the enabler for an emerging digital economy. On the other hand, the Internet has become a battleground for the management and control of data, particularly personal data. The exploitation of this data has many dangerous consequences, including what Zuboff calls “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”.

Such concerns have led the original founder of the WWW, Sir Tim Berners-Lee to believe that Big Tech companies have too much power and control over data and have led the Internet astray. He is now focused on reinventing the WWW based on a new paradigm, expressed by Irene Ng and her team as “my data belongs to me”. From this view, individuals need to take back power from the big tech giants by recognizing that data is a currency. The Internet can support a new market in data to be created in which each of us can actively participate.

The past 30 years has been an exciting but turbulent time for the Internet and the WWW. In October 2020 it was estimated that almost 4.66 billion people were active users of the Internet. Yet the original concept of the Internet and the WWW as open and free to all is long dead. Commercialization and political pressure driving the digital economy have splintered this ideal. Far from looking back, a new forward-looking vision for the Internet is required.

Digital Economy Tidbits

He created the Web. Now he’s out to remake the world. Link.

The latest from Sir Tim Berners-Lee on why he’s focused on personal data management, and the need to take back power from the big tech giants.

IBM’s financial struggles continue. Link.

A really interesting irony is that even Large Established Organizations (LEOs) who are in the business of supporting digital transformation are struggling to digitally transform.

Lessons from six years of learning analytics at the Open University. Link.

One of the key directions for digital transformation in education involves enhancing Learning Analytics. The Open University is perhaps the most experienced in online learning, so their lessons in this area are particularly useful. Their emphasis on contextualizing the analytic to make it actionable is key.