The internet always has been dynamic and evolving, moving from a text-based communications network to full-throttled streaming of all forms of digital media. The next version, thanks to new 5G technologies, will be even more immersive, as the Internet of Things brings still more aspects of our lives online.
But as the internet matures, it is threatened by its very success. Large interests — both corporate and government — are at play that can dampen the internet’s future. What has been a global advance connecting more than 4 billion people globally in only a 20-year time frame is now under threat, with the potential to unravel and fracture today’s internet experience.
For starters, some of the world’s more autocratic regimes have always been wary of the unbridled political speech fostered by the internet.
Most famously, China erected the Great Firewall to assert its internet sovereignty and limit access to foreign websites. But other nations have also moved to control internet access, including Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
As governments tighten their grip, a balkanized internet becomes less valuable. Rather than the seamless flow of information to all corners of the world, we are left with various walled gardens serving up their own flavor of reality.
But It’s not just the world’s dictators who are meddling with the internet. Growing regulation is also a threat to the internet. Europe has a strong record of regulatory interventions that are changing the fundamental workings of the internet, not just in Europe but worldwide.
Last spring, the EU adopted a new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to govern how companies use private data about consumers. These new standards were put in place to protect the privacy of EU citizens, but their impact will be global, given the reach of digital commerce.
Any company anywhere in the world doing business with citizens of the EU must comply or be subject to fines. While the laws are still being put in place, it is clear that the administrative costs will be significant, with companies that deal with large amounts of data being required to create a Data Protection Officer to ensure compliance with the GDPR.
Even more disconcerting, the EU just voted on a measure with two provisions that will have far-reaching ramifications for the internet if finalized and implemented into law.
The first, Article 11, often referred to as the “link tax,” requires websites to pay media companies and publishers for any content used on their site. News aggregators, for example, would pay for materials posted on their site.
Or perhaps the number of aggregators will fall as it becomes more expensive and burdensome to publish such sites. Either way, the consumers access to a free flow of information is being challenged.
The second provision, Article 13 requires internet companies to screen out any copyright violations. While addressing copyright concerns is a legitimate issue, Article 13 is a dangerous way to do it.
A letter submitted to the European Parliament by a host of internet visionaries, including creator of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, noted, “By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering [of] all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users.”
Unlike the light-touch regulation the that has seen the United States at the forefront of internet innovation, the heavy-handed regulations emanating from the EU pose a significant threat to the unfettered innovation that has created today’s internet.
Even in the United States, the internet is facing new challenges as regulators grapple with issues such as data protection, algorithmic bias, and questions of taxation in a borderless world, to name a few from a growing list.
Just last spring, Congress passed new laws expanding the liability of internet companies for actions taken by third parties using their services. This is a significant departure from the safe harbors first enacted by Congress to promote the innovation and entrepreneurship that built the internet.
Ironically, new mandates such as these have the potential to be anti-competitive as they shore up existing incumbents by raising administrative burdens and compliance costs, making it more difficult for internet startups and would-be competitors to enter the market.
It’s not surprising that the internet has caught the attention of powerful interests who want to shape and mold its future. It’s no longer an interesting science project for engineers; it’s a trillion dollar industry that’s reshaping global markets.
Tech companies, incumbent industries, and governments at all levels have a stake in the internet’s future. And when political forces are brought to bear on market outcomes, consumer welfare is put at risk by the special interests who are better represented in the political decision-making process.
As the number of regulatory mandates increases, pushing and pulling the internet in different directions, its seamless operation is under threat. And as we observe these new rules accumulating, we may be left wondering who broke the internet.
Wayne T. Brough is president of the Innovation Defense Foundation.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.