Internet Governance Open Internet Standards Public Policy

The “Ubernet” is Not a Fait Accompli

The Economist ran an article recently that concluded the open Internet is on life support and may soon transform into something frightening:

“…[the decentralised, open-internet model of today] is looking less and less likely. Indeed, it now seems inevitable that the internet of tomorrow will rely on more top-down command and control than the bottom-up freedom of yesterday…

More than likely, people going online could find themselves spending most of their time within the confines of one or two mega-sites. Instead of visiting a multitude of different websites for different things, users could be confronted with a series of “walled gardens” built around app stores and proprietary services that offer everything from streaming video to holidays and household goods. As such, they will satisfy the visitors’ every need and whim, save one-the ease of venturing far and wide in the scary wilderness beyond the garden walls. Welcome to the Ubernet.”

The article cites a planning exercise conducted by Internet Society staff in 2009, detailing events that could impact the health of the Internet in the future. This ‘walled garden scenario’ (or ‘Porous Garden scenario’ as we refer to it) was only one of the Internet Society’s four potential future scenarios. Despite the fatalism of The Economist article, and the fact that we ourselves identified it as a possible outcome for what the Internet could look like in 2015, we don’t believe it to be inevitable.

When we embarked on this planning exercise, the process began with two questions: “Will the world embrace or resist the open Internet model?” and “What model will be more successful? Command and control? Or, distributed and decentralized?”

This exercise identified four potential future scenarios. In the Moats & Drawbridges Scenario , the Internet would become heavily centralized and dominated by a small number of big players, raising barriers to entry and limiting innovation at the edges. The Boutique Networks Scenario showed the Internet becoming fractionalized as separate, self-interested factions to optimize control in small sectors. In the Porous Garden Scenario, networks would remain global but access to content and services would be tied to the use of specific networks and associated information appliances. And finally, the Common Pool Scenario highlighted the growth of the open Internet with no insurmountable barriers to entry and innovation.

After more than five years since the initial identification of these potential outcomes, and as we anticipated in the scenario document itself, we have seen developments related to each. Government censorship of the Internet could support arguments that the ‘Moats and Drawbridges Scenario’ is a likely outcome in some countries. The use of proprietary single sign-on implementations that tie users to specific services could support arguments that the ‘Boutique Networks Scenario’ is on the horizon. Alternatively, the growth of certain online destinations for content and the coupling of applications to specific appliances could support a claim that the ‘Porous Garden Scenario’ is most likely.

Indeed, there have been a range of developments across the technical, economic, and political spheres that lay challenge to the open Internet. Over the years, however, the most constant characteristic of the Internet has been the pace of change. And looking through the lens of the scenarios, there is significant evidence that the “Ubernet” is not a fait accompli – but rather the open Internet, the ‘Common Pool’ Scenario, continues to thrive and provide benefits to the nearly three billion users today.

Fostering the ‘Common Pool’ Scenario

In the light of the dynamic change and generative possibilities the Internet itself brings, the reality is that the Internet will continue to evolve. For our part, the Internet Society believes that there are key properties that need to be preserved as part of its ongoing evolution (including openness, interoperability, open standards, and its multistakeholder model of development) which will enable the Internet to continue to serve as a platform for seemingly limitless innovation. And we work tirelessly with a range of stakeholders including government, business, civil society, individuals and technologists to ensure that the Internet continues to evolve as an open platform, one that serves the economic, social and educational needs of individuals throughout the world.

Over the past several weeks, for example, we’ve participated in the ITU Plenipotentiary conference in Busan, South Korea, an international treaty conference where ITU Member States (i.e., Governments) have the opportunity to revise and adopt plans for ITU activities and international recommendations relating to telecommunications and information technologies, including, and of greatest importance to us, matters that could impact the broader Internet ecosystem.

Throughout the conference, we have worked to ensure that this intergovernmental body as a whole and its Member States understand and uphold key attributes of the Internet that make it the engine for innovation, creativity, and communications we enjoy today. As we noted in our submission to the Plenipotentiary, we can not afford to stymie growth by returning to top-down policy and regulatory models of the past that are inappropriate for and inadequate to meet the promise of tomorrow’s Internet – as doing so would surely set the Internet on a path towards the negative outcomes identified in our alternative scenarios.

Despite the push at the Plenipotentiary by some countries toward a more top-down, government-controlled model, such proposals were largely averted due to a growing appreciation by many governments that the benefits derived from the Internet would be impeded by that approach – good news for the future of an open Internet and the “Common Pool.”

While there are many ongoing discussions about the broad future of the Internet and who, if anyone, should control it, no single entity owns the Internet today and there is no preordained outcome for its evolution. Only through the advancement of key Internet principles and broad collaboration amongst stakeholders in a manner that recognizes the roles, responsibilities, and expertise of different organizations and interests, can we can guide a positive future for the open Internet that will provide benefits for generations to come.

The Internet Society and many, many others across the Internet community work hard to promote and ensure a free, open and accessible Internet for all – one that is not walled, not censored, not fractured. We have to keep working. We must continue to be vigilant in defending the Internet’s principles of openness that has so clearly contributed to its growth to date. The “Ubernet” is not fait accompli and the Internet Society calls for everyone who supports the ‘Common Pool’ scenario to join with us to ensure these attributes of openness remain a central part of the Internet’s evolution.