Is it the end of the www?

By Bhaskar Chakravorti, Special to CNN

In a flat world, unflattering news moves quickly. The snowballing effects of the Snowden revelations about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of Internet traffic threaten to break up the World Wide Web. Consider some of the news since the scandal broke: 100,000 Germans have signed up for a service called Email Made in Germany that guarantees that German email is stored in German servers; some Indian government employees have been advised to switch to typewriters (yes, you read that right) for sensitive documents; the Brazilians are reportedly planning a BRICS-only fiber-optic cable from Fortaleza in Brazil to Vladivostok in Russia, with stops along the way in Cape Town, Chennai and Shantou; the usually unflappable Swiss have begun to build a domestic cloud service for fear of American surveillance.

The chorus of voices to de-Americanize the Internet has grown well beyond those of the usual suspects of Russia, China, Iran and United Arab Emirates. Now, with the grumbling of the EU and the BRICS countries, the dissent risks reaching a tipping point.

Thus far, the United States has been the de facto leader of the Internet for three principal reasons. One is its first-mover status – the Internet was created in the United States. Second, the U.S. has the best innovation and funding ecosystem, by far. Third, despite the Internet’s government-funded origins, essentially all of the subsequent activity has been in private hands. In other words, the incursion of Google, Facebook or Twitter in foreign lands has been received with the mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism akin to that enjoyed by the likes of Coca Cola, KFC or Madonna. In principle, none of them is an agent of the U.S. government. If Google has your data, most ordinary people seem willing to shrug it off. But if the U.S. government has your data, then even the Swiss can be driven to revolt.

The Snowden revelations have blurred this crucial boundary between the U.S. private sector and its government, which is why this is such a turning point. But there remains a fundamental question to which we have no clear answer: if the U.S. gives up its leadership of governing and operating key parts of the Internet, what would take its place? Is there an equivalent to some macro governance by multilateral agencies akin to the Security Council/the G-20/the United Nations combined with each country managing the micro governance through its own “visa” rules for crossing its borders?

Such rules would be a disaster. The single biggest contribution of the Internet has been its ability to allow us to make the most unexpected of connections; this is possible precisely because of the absence of heavy-handed governance. Ordinary individuals at one end of the planet have been able to solve extraordinary problems by finding a way to the other end. Consider just three of the thousands of extraordinary connections that might never have been made:

Saroo Brierley may never have met his mother: Saroo Brierley, as a boy, fell asleep on a train in India, got lost, and was eventually adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, he managed from Tasmania to re-locate his home in Ganesh Talai, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, using Google Earth. He then went onto a group dedicated to the town on Facebook, which led to multiple emails until he was reunited with his mother.

Joern Lutert may never have found a way to get clean water to an African home: A visit to even a single crowdsourcing site, such as InnoCentive, gives us an instant appreciation for how a freely accessible website can serve to connect problems with innovative problem-solvers. You can see how a German mechanical engineer, Joern Lutert, can propose a practical and affordable way to harvest rainwater that can be acted on by an organization that makes the product and save a Ugandan woman a 30-minute walk three to four times a day to fetch water.

Patrick Meier may never have helped mobilize the humanitarian response to the Philippines typhoon disaster: The site MicroMappers, launched by Meier’s crisis-mapping group in Qatar, helps to organize data from tweets and photographs uploaded from on-site mobile phones, and displays the information on satellite maps to be used by rescue, recovery and aid agencies. With the latest catastrophic events in the Philippines, such technologies can be critical to saving lives by efficiently directing aid and for restoring livelihoods.

Whether the world is truly flat or not is a debate for another day, but – with the exceptions of its restricted status in a few countries – the Internet has been remarkably flat. As a result, it has been astoundingly easy to make the many extraordinary connections, such as the ones noted above, or do something as banal as upload a kitten video that goes viral. It is this ability to connect the dots that leads to new economic opportunities, new political movements – and even new Internet companies.

Consider the case of the Internet Company of the Year. Despite the fact that the Grand Mufti had denounced it as a “council for jokesters,” Twitter has the highest proportion of users in Saudi Arabia. This ironic connection alone is testament to the flatness of the Internet. I have no particular fondness for monopolies or leaders-for-life; but I see no viable way the Internet could be run in a radically different way from the past. Instead, the tools of Twitter and other offspring of the Internet should be sharpened and turned toward revealing evidence of government over-reach – wherever it occurs. Companies that carry substantial amounts of data across international lines should invest in new encryption systems, such as “perfect forward secrecy,” among others.

And, of course, there must be a broad framework that allows for cooperation between the private and public sector to allow a mechanism for detecting threats to public safety and national security, while ensuring individual security and privacy. This is going to be hard work, but our collective energies should be directed toward a comprehensive drawing of boundaries and responsibilities that strike a proper balance.

If we were to allow the Snowden affair to finally splinter the Internet, the Grand Mufti will be proven to be rather prescient. All of the Web may turn out to be a council for jokesters, except that the joke will be on all of us: the World Wide Web will be anything but “world-wide.” This would leave us with only a “web” that achieves the purpose of webs: to trap us in a little corner of the world

Editor’s note: Bhaskar Chakravorti is the senior associate dean of International Business & Finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is the author of the book The Slow Pace of Fast Change.  The views expressed are his own. Orinaly posted on CNN

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