The internet is a virtual place of promises and perils. It presents many promising opportunities for creativity, education, innovation, information, and knowledge. It simultaneously presents many perilous opportunities for abuse, crime, oppression, surveillance, and terrorism.
The internet’s present state is one of dynamic tension between these promises and perils. This present state however is neither guaranteed nor stable. This tension could snap. Despite the many serious, and growing, perils, the promises are currently still advantageous enough to make internet use desirable and even necessary. But the perils could one day overwhelm the internet, thereby undermining and even negating its advantages. Or perhaps the perils could be eliminated one day with more sophisticated security programs coupled with more responsible and prudent use.
The internet’s future is uncertain. It could become more promising or more perilous. Or it could remain in a continued state of tension between the two. It is important to consider its possible future because it has become such an important part of contemporary life. The aim of such a consideration is not to predict the future but instead to outline possible scenarios that could emerge.
According to the analyst Jason Healey of the Atlantic Council, a respected American research thinktank specialising in international affairs, the internet has five possible futures that involve both cyber cooperation and conflict. These five possible futures – titled status quo, conflict domain, balkanisation, paradise, and cybergeddon – share three characteristics: “how strongly the geography of cyberspace favours offense over defence; the intensity and kinds of cyber conflicts; and the intensity and kinds of cyber cooperation”.
The first possible future is status quo. The internet remains in its present state of tension between promise and peril, or put differently, between cooperation and conflict. It is, in other words, a relatively safe virtual place to conduct business, communicate, and share information, even though criminals continue to engage in illicit activities, governments and corporations continue to spy and surveil, militaries continue to develop and deploy cyberweapons, and terrorists continue to spread terror online.
Nevertheless, according to the Atlantic Council, the internet “remains stable overall, despite discontent, difficulties, and disruptions. People tweet, Skype, listen to music, wander Wikipedia, and play World of Warcraft. Businesses rely on cyber connections to produce and deliver their goods and services, and depend on e-mail and web presence to communicate with their clients. Governments depend on internet-delivered services, and some, like Estonia, even have elections online.”
The second possible future is conflict domain. Conflict becomes more frequent online. Militaries adopt and employ increasingly lethal cyberweapons, defences, and programs. It becomes as common for militaries to attack their targets in cyberspace as it is in the physical world. Terrorists also realise they can achieve more far-reaching attacks and disruptions by engaging in more systematic and sustained online terror campaigns.
The Atlantic Council describes that just as somewhere in the world there are various large-scale physical conflicts, “the world will become used to there being many ongoing cyber conflicts, some of them lethal. Indeed, it will be uncommon for there to be a conflict that does not have an online component.”
China and North Korea, for instance, already have their own national internets that are largely separate from the global internet
But these attacks, crimes, and disruptions are unable to cause widespread damage. The internet remains relatively stable and trusted for commerce and communication. People learn to live with and work through the risks. The Atlantic Council states that “there may be certain areas equivalent to modern-day Somalia – dangerous to be in, or even near – but these failed regions of cyberspace are widely known to be dangerous, and most people can easily avoid them.”
The third possible future is balkanisation. The internet becomes segregated along national borders. Countries begin to demand so-called cyber sovereignty to exercise exclusive control over the internet within their jurisdictions. The global internet becomes a patchwork of national Internets.
Balkanisation is in fact already underway. China and North Korea, for instance, already have their own national inter-nets that are largely separate from the global internet. Other countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, are erecting firewallsto prohibit access to the global internet from within their borders.
Countries even begin to shut down the internet within their jurisdictions, especially during tumultuous times. This turning off of the internet has already happened. For example, in 2011, Egypt and Libya temporarily turned off the internet with-in their borders during the uprisings against their regimes.
The fourth possible future is paradise. The internet’s promises are fully realised. It becomes a completely safe, secure, and stable virtual place where its many perils are eliminated through new perfected technologies that make crime and conflict impossible. The Atlantic Council considers paradise as “possible, but not likely” because it would require “either a tremendous number of small things to work well enough, or one or two tremendously large ones to work perfectly”.
The fifth possible future is cybergeddon. The internet’s perils are fully realised. Conflict becomes constant, relentless, and ubiquitous. According to the Atlantic Council “every kind of conflict is not just possible and occurring (as in conflict domain), but they seem to be occurring all the time”. The internet becomes too risky to use and too dangerous a place to visit. It can no longer be trusted for reliable communication or legitimate commerce. The internet is therefore “increasingly abandoned by consumers and enterprises”.
Further, all technologies and standards developed to attempt to establish or re-establish security are either undermined or overwhelmed by attacks. The internet becomes a kind of no-go virtual space of crime and conflict.
Although these internet futures are all possible, perhaps the most likely future, at least in the near term, will be a kind of transition between status quo and conflict domain with some balkanization developments. The internet is presently in the status quo scenario with a tension between cooperation and conflict, promises and perils.
Some countries, however, have already begun to balkanise the internet within their national borders under the guise of cyber sovereignty. According to the Atlantic Council, the most likely future for the internet will be conflict domain. It describes how all actors in cyberspace, including governments, militaries, corporations, criminal organisations, and terrorists, are improving their digital capabilities and are seeking “to be able to have long-lasting and wide-reaching effects, whether in stealing money or information, or in disrupting their enemies”.
Regardless of the internet’s possible future, there are steps that can be taken today to try to achieve the most desirable outcome of paradise. The Atlantic Council recommends that all actors, whether institutions or individuals, identify and patch vulnerable and infected computers, monitor and make it more difficult for attacks or suspected attacks to transit networks, and engage with international partners to establish areas of common concern and mutual action.
These recommendations are ready to be explored and implemented. What is needed is the will to do so.
Considering the internet’s future is an important exercise. It is important because the internet’s future, whatever it may be, will have major impacts on our lives.
Marc Kosciejew is a lecturer and former head of department of Library Information and Archive Sciences at the University of Malta.