Forecast | Geopolitics of the unhinged web: Future of the Internet P9

Control over the Internet. Who will own it? Who will fight over it? How will it look in the hands of the power hungry? 

Thus far in our Future of the Internet series, we’ve described a largely optimistic view of the web—one of ever-growing sophistication, utility, and wonder. We’ve focused on the technology behind our future digital world, as well as how it will impact our personal and social lives. 

But we live in the real world. And what we didn’t cover until now is how those wanting to control the web will impact the Internet’s growth.

You see, the web is growing exponentially and so too is the amount of data our society generates year over year. This unwieldy growth represents an existential threat to the government’s monopoly of control over its citizens. Naturally, when a technology arises to decentralize the power structure of the elites, those same elites will try to appropriate that technology to retain control and maintain order. This is the underlying narrative for everything you’re about to read.

In this series finale, we’ll explore how unrestrained capitalism, geopolitics, and underground activist movements will converge and wage war upon the open battleground of the web. The aftermath of this war could dictate the nature of the digital world we’ll end up with over the decades to come. 

Capitalism takes over our web experience

There are many reasons for wanting to control the Internet, but the easiest reason to understand is the motivation to make money, the capitalist drive. Over the past five years, we've seen the beginnings of how this corporate greed is reshaping the average person’s web experience.

Probably the most visible illustration of private enterprise trying to control the web is the competition between US broadband providers and the Silicon Valley giants. As companies like Netflix began substantially increasing the amount of data being consumed at home, broadband providers attempted to charge streaming services a higher rate compared to other websites that consumed less broadband data. This kicked off a huge debate over web neutrality and who got to set the rules over the web.

For the Silicon Valley elites, they saw the play the broadband companies were making as a threat to their profitability and a threat to innovation in general. Luckily for the public, due to Silicon Valley’s influence over government, and in the culture at large, the broadband providers largely failed in their attempts to own the web.

This doesn't mean they acted completely altruistically, though. Many of them have plans of their own when it comes to dominating the web. For web companies, profitability depends largely on the quality and length of engagement they generate from users. This metric is encouraging web companies to create large online ecosystems they hope users will stay within, rather than visiting their competitors. In reality, this is a form of indirect control of the web you experience.

A familiar example of this subversive control is the stream. In the past, when you browsed the web to consume news in various forms of media, that generally meant typing in the URL or clicking a link to visit a variety of individual websites.  These days, for the majority smartphone users, their experience of the web takes place largely through apps, self-enclosed ecosystems that provide you with a range of media, usually without requiring you to leave the app to discover or send media.

When you engage with services like Facebook or Netflix, they aren't just passively serving you media — their finely crafted algorithms are carefully monitoring everything you click on, like, heart, comment on, etc. Through this process, these algorithms gauge your personality and interests with the end goal of serving you content that you’re more likely to engage with, thereby drawing you into their ecosystem more deeply and for longer periods of time.

On one hand, these algorithms are providing you with a useful service by introducing you to content you're more likely to enjoy; on the other hand, these algorithms are controlling the media you consume and shielding you from content that might challenge the way you think and how you perceive the world. These algorithms essentially keep you in a finely-crafted, passive, curated bubble, as opposed to the self-explored web where you actively sought out news and media on your own terms.

Over the following decades, many of these web companies will continue their quest to own your online attention. They will do this by heavily influencing, then buying up a wide range of media companies—centralizing the ownership of mass media even further.

Balkanizing the web for national security

While corporations may want to control your web experience to satisfy their bottom line, governments have far darker agendas. 

This agenda made international front-page news following the Snowden leaks when it was revealed that the US National Security Agency used illicit surveillance to spy on its own people and on other governments. This event, more so than any other in the past, politicized the neutrality of the web and reemphasized the concept of “technological sovereignty,” where a nation tries to exact control over their citizen’s data and web activity.

Once treated as a passive nuisance, the scandal forced world governments to take more assertive positions about the Internet, their online security, and their policies toward online regulation—both to protect (and defend itself against) their citizens and their relations with other nations. 

As a result, political leaders across the world both scolded the US and also began to invest in ways to nationalize their Internet infrastructure. A few examples:

  • Brazil announced plans to build an Internet cable to Portugal to avoid NSA surveillance. They also switched from using Microsoft Outlook to a state-developed service called Espresso.
  • China announced it would complete a 2,000 km, nearly unhackable, quantum communication network from Beijing to Shanghai by 2016, with plans to extend the network worldwide by 2030.
  • Russia approved a law that forces foreign web companies to store the data they collect about Russians in data centers located within Russia.

Publicly, the reasoning behind these investments was to protect their citizen’s privacy against western surveillance, but the reality is that it’s all about control. You see, none of these measures substantially protect the average person from foreign digital surveillance. Protecting your data depends more on how your data is transmitted and stored, more so than where it’s physically located. 

And as we’ve seen after the fallout of the Snowden files, government intelligence agencies have no interest in improving the encryption standards for the average web user—in fact, they actively lobby against it for supposed national security reasons. Moreover, the growing movement to localize data collection (see Russia above) really means that your data becomes more easily accessible by local law enforcement, which isn’t great news if you’re living in increasingly Orwellian states like Russia or China.

This brings the future web nationalization trends into focus: Centralization to more easily control data and conduct surveillance via localization of data collection and web regulation in favor of domestic laws and corporations.

Web censorship matures

Censorship is probably the most well-understood form of government-backed social control, and its application on the web is rapidly growing across the world. The reasons behind this spread vary, but the worst offenders are usually those nations with either a large but poor population, or nations controlled by a socially conservative ruling class.

The most famous example of modern web censorship is China’s Great Firewall. Designed to block domestic and international websites on China’s blacklist (a list that’s 19,000 sites long as of 2015), this firewall is backed by two million state employees that actively monitor Chinese websites, social media, blogs, and messaging networks to try and ferret out illegal and dissident activity. China’s Great Firewall is expanding its ability to exact social control over the Chinese population. Soon, if you’re a Chinese citizen, government censors and algorithms will grade the friends you have on social media, the messages you post online, and the items you buy on e-commerce sites. If your online activity fails to meet the government’s strict social standards, it will lower your credit score, impacting your ability to get loans, secure travel permits, and even land certain types of jobs.

On the other extreme are Western countries where citizens feel protected by freedom of speech/expression laws. Sadly, Western-style censorship can be just as corrosive to public freedoms.

In European countries where freedom of speech isn’t quite absolute, governments are creeping in censorship laws under the pretense of protecting the public. Through government pressure, the UK’s top Internet service providers—Virgin, Talk Talk, BT, and Sky—agreed to add a digital “public reporting button” where the public can report any online content that promotes terroristic or extremist speech and child sexual exploitation.

Reporting the latter is obviously a public good, but reporting the former is completely subjective based on what individuals label as extremist—a label the government can one day expand to a wide array of activities and special interest groups through an ever more liberal interpretation of the term (in fact, examples of this are already emerging).

Meanwhile, in countries that practice an absolutist form of free speech protection, like the US, censorship takes the form of ultra-nationalism (“You’re either with us or against us”), expensive litigation, public shaming over the media, and—as we’ve seen with Snowden—the eroding of whistleblower protection laws.

Government censorship is set to grow, not shrink, behind the pretext of protecting the public against criminal and terrorist threats. In fact, according to

  • Between May 2013 and May 2014, 41 countries passed or proposed legislation to penalize legitimate forms of speech online, increase government powers to control content or expand government surveillance capabilities.
  • Since May 2013, arrests for online communications pertinent to politics and social issues were documented in 38 of the 65 countries monitored, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, where detentions occurred in 10 out of the 11 countries examined in the region.
  • Pressure on independent news websites, among the few unfettered sources of information in many countries, dramatically increased. Dozens of citizen journalists were attacked while reporting on conflicts in Syria and anti-government protests in Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine. Other governments stepped up licensing and regulation for web platforms.  
  • After the 2015 Paris terror attacks, French law enforcement began calling for online anonymity tools to become restricted from the public. Why would they make this request? Let's dig deeper.

Rise of the deep and dark web

In light of this growing government directive to monitor and censor our online activity, groups of concerned citizens with very particular skills are emerging with the aim of protecting our freedoms.

Entrepreneurs, hackers, and libertarian collectives are forming around the world to develop a range of subversive tools to help the public evade Big Brother’s digital eye. Chief among these tools is TOR (the Onion Router) and the deep web.

While many variations exist, TOR is the leading tool hackers, spies, journalists, and concerned citizens (and yes, criminals too) use to avoid being monitored over the web. As its name suggests, TOR works by distributing your web activity through many layers of intermediaries, so as to blur your web identity among those of many other TOR users.

Interest and use of TOR has exploded post-Snowden, and it will continue to grow. But this system still operates on a delicate shoestring budget run by volunteers and organizations who are now collaborating to grow the number of TOR relays (layers) so the network can operate faster and more securely for its projected growth.

The deep web is comprised of sites that are accessible to anyone but aren’t visible to search engines. As a result, they remain largely invisible to everyone except those who know what to look for. These sites usually contain password-protected databases, documents, corporate info, etc. The deep web is 500 times the size of the visible web the average person accesses through Google.

Of course, as useful as these sites are for corporations, they are also a growing tool for hackers and activists. Known as Darknets (TOR is one of them), these are peer-to-peer networks that employ non-standard Internet protocols to communicate and share files without detection. Depending on the country and how extreme its civilian surveillance policies, the trends strongly point to these niche hacker tools becoming mainstream by 2025. All that’s required are a few more public surveillance scandals and the introduction of user-friendly darknet tools. And when they do go mainstream, e-commerce and media companies will follow, pulling a large chunk of the web into an untrackable abyss the government will find near impossible to track.

Surveillance goes both ways

Thanks to the recent Snowden leaks, it’s now clear that large-scale surveillance between the government and its citizens can go both ways. As more of the government’s operations and communications are digitized, they become more vulnerable to large-scale media and activist inquiry and surveillance (hacking).

Moreover, as our Future of Computers series revealed, advances in Quantum computing will soon make all modern passwords and encryption protocols obsolete. If you add the possible rise of AIs to the mix, then governments will have to contend with superior machine intellects that will likely not think too kindly about being spied on. 

The federal government will likely regulate both of these innovations aggressively, but neither will remain out of reach of determined libertarian activists. That’s why, by the 2030s, we’ll begin entering an era where nothing can remain private on the web—except data physically separated from the web (you know, like good, old-fashioned books). This trend will force the acceleration of current open-source governance movements worldwide, where government data is made freely accessible to allow the public to collectively partner in the decision-making process and improve democracy. 

Future web freedom depends on future abundance

The government need to control—both online and through force—is largely a symptom of its inability to adequately provide for its population’s material and emotional needs. This need for control is at its highest in developing countries, as a restive citizenry deprived of basic goods and freedoms is one that’s more likely to overthrow the reins of power (as we saw during the 2011 Arab Spring).

That’s also why the best way to ensure a future without excessive government surveillance is to collectively work towards a world of abundance. If future nations are able to provide an exceedingly high standard of living for their populations, then their need to monitor and police their population will fall, and so too will their need to police the web.

As we end our Future of the Internet series, it’s important to re-emphasize that the Internet is ultimately just a tool that enables more efficient communication and resource allocation. It is by no means a magic pill for all of the world’s problems. But to achieve an abundant world, the web must play a central role in more effectively bringing together those industries—like energy, agriculture, transportation, and infrastructure—that will reshape our tomorrow. As long as we work to keep the web free for all, that future may come sooner than you’d think.

Future of the Internet series

Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
The Next Social Web vs. Godlike Search Engines: Future of the Internet P2
Rise of the Big Data-Powered Virtual Assistants: Future of the Internet P3
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
The Day Wearables Replace Smartphones: Future of the Internet P5
Virtual Reality and the Global Hive Mind: Future of the Internet P7
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8

Likelihood of happening rating 
Moderate (3/5)
importance rating 
Massive (5/5)
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February 28, 2021. Last updated February 28, 2019.
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