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“Split of the Internet?” – Reflections at the Rentrée Académique 2019

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Published on Thursday, 03 October 2019

The internet is not a monolithic architecture. Instead, it is a fragile and contingent construction of hardware, software, standards and databases.

Governed by a wide range of private and public actors, it is subject to evolution and political pressure and has many potential futures. This was the topic of the keynote speech “Four Internets: The Ethics and Geopolitics of the Internet” by Professor Kieron O’Hara at the Rentrée Académique 2019.

The Rentrée Académique marks the official start of the academic year at the University of Luxembourg. It is a time to celebrate the return of the semester, honour excellence, but also focus on topics that are important for research, the University and society, such as digital modernity.

Four models of the internet

O’Hara sketched four models of the internet. Ever since the original creators engineered the internet to be open (the Silicon Valley Open Internet), global politics have left their mark. The original model has long since morphed into something else. By now, it is a plurality of competing geopolitical visions: The Bourgeois Internet aims to minimise trolling and bad behaviour and protect privacy; the Paternal Internet uses surveillance technologies to ensure social cohesion around a specific set of values; and the Commercial Internet views online resources as a private property. Silicon Valley, Europe, China and the United States promote these models, although other governments or regions follow to one or the other model.

How the internet is governed and which shapes it takes are questions of global interest. The internet touches the lives of billions of people and this number increases every year. For the moment, the four models coexist, and other models may join. While many may predict a negative and harmful shift in power structures and distribution, O’Hara remains hopeful: “Can we make the case for a benign, neutral internet, where opinions and diversity are respected?”

About Kieron O'Hara

Kieron O’Hara is an Associate Professor in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. His speech was based on the paper “Four Internets – The Geopolitics of Digital Governance,” which he co-authored together with Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor from the University of Southampton. The paper was published in 2018 in the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Papers and is available for download here.