The Internet as we know it is synonymous with universality, a quality that has sustained since the creation of the World Wide Web. As the Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, describes it: “No permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the Web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure. This has also been critical to the Web’s growth and is critical to its future.”
But today, there is a very real risk of this universality going away.
Recently, I attended a meeting with government officials and business executives about the issues surrounding the recent National Security Agency scandals. We had an in-depth conversation about the challenges the corporate and public sectors face in determining how to balance upholding the sanctity of the Internet with the need of the U.S. government to protect its citizens.
Unsurprisingly, this topic is extremely complex. And as with most arguments, there are many instances where each side doesn’t always understand the other, at least initially. The government’s requests for data from technology providers has occurred far less than at least some popular stories and reports would suggest. But, equally, the U.S. administration has likely underestimated the damage recent revelations have caused for service providers doing business abroad. The mere potential for impropriety, regardless of what the facts may be, can drive foreign governments, companies and citizens to take pause.
It has already begun. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff championed a bill that would require that substantial user Internet data be kept within the country (this was eventually dismissed as technically infeasible). Germany and France have initiated similar conversations, with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel suggesting that, “one could build up a communication network inside Europe.” Even the German parliament has confirmed it’s looking into using non-electronic typewriters to avoid moving important communications over the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee must be cringing.
Some of this is unrealistic political posturing, but all of it is bad for the progress of the Internet. In the face of the obvious and important privacy implications that fill most of the news stories, we’ve nearly forgotten the economic consequences.
The power of the Internet rests in its ability to be a universal and global medium. It spans nearly all nations and belongs to no single country. And as the world continues to become more globalized, the Internet’s role as a trusted and secure backbone for communication, commerce and collaboration is more important than ever before.
As we transition from the industrial age to the information age, geographical boundaries are shrinking. The competitive advantage companies once built up by concentrating on individual regions crumbles in an interconnected world. No company can merely transact with local suppliers and partners — and if it does, it will be at a steep disadvantage. Nations that don’t embrace this trend halt their own progress.
The fabric that binds us all in this new economy is the Internet.
The Internet is the broker for individuals that want to earn extra income by renting out a spare room on Airbnb; it’s the marketplace for the small businesses in China that want to sell their products around the globe on Alibaba; and it’s the tissue that connects the partners, suppliers and customers of global organizations like GE. Whether you’re an individual, small business, or one of the world’s largest enterprises, the Internet increasingly is driving your economic opportunity, and making that opportunity global.
The Internet singularly enables this flatness, and it should be connecting the world, not separating it. The last thing we can afford is a balkanization of the web, yet we run this risk if things continue on their current track.
For its part, the Obama administration seems motivated to tackle these challenges. But that won’t be enough. What’s needed is a discussion that transcends the interests of a single nation: we need multilateral discussions on the future of the Internet and governments’ role in protecting (and policing) it. The U.S. government may have started this chain reaction, but it will require far more than the U.S. government to halt it.
There are many ways of tackling this, and none of them will be easy. What is ultimately needed is a set of international standards, rules or operating principles that major governments, corporations and privacy advocates buy into. This wouldn’t be without precedent, as many commercial and economically-critical multinational interests like airspace, maritime and energy laws are governed by the United Nations. This clearly moves the power away from any single government and brings more trust back into the system.
What must be avoided, at all costs, is a balkanized approach to Internet policing, where each government is on its own without regard for the collective.
For the next two decades of the Internet to be as good as the last two, things need to change. I’m hopeful that this will be an ongoing dialogue as we move towards fulfilling the promise of an Internet that connects the world and powers the global economy.
Aaron Levie is co-founder and CEO of Box, an online content sharing and collaboration service for businesses.