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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Internet Society launches tool to protect the open web

The Internet Society has developed a tool for policymakers that aims to preserve the internet’s open and free standards. It’s launching in the face of looming threats such as Trump’s ‘clean internet’ initiative, Belarus cutting off civilian access to the internet amid protests, and the EU’s push towards ‘digital sovereignty’. 

The group’s regulatory Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit defines the critical properties needed to protect the future of the internet as we know it. Lawmakers are encouraged to use it while crafting internet regulation policy, to assess the effects that new legislation will have on the underlying structures of the internet. 

Senior director of policy strategy and development at the Internet Society, Konstantinos Komaitis, notes that the tool is being launched in response to the burgeoning trend for internet regulation across the globe. The EU is working on a Digital Services Act for example, while the UK’s Online Harms legislation is still being developed. Komaitis says the organisation “soon realised that the effort of states and policymakers to create regulation” could “create some unintended consequences to the infrastructure of the internet.” 

Founded in 1992 by some of the internet’s forefathers including Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the Internet Society aims to lead in internet-related standards and access, as well as policy areas such as internet governance, regulation and security. It’s committed to a view of an open web that benefits as many people as possible. 

The organisation has identified five critical properties of the internet that should be preserved at all costs. These include: an accessible infrastructure with a common protocol, open architecture and infrastructure, decentralised management and a single distributed routing system, common global identifiers, and a technology-neutral, general-purpose network. 

“[The five properties] create benefits for global connectivity, they create benefits for interoperable services and permissionless innovation. They create the benefits of not allowing fragmentation and fractures, and the fact that everybody can participate – all of these things are values that we can all come behind,” says Komaitis. 

He says that if “a new [regulatory] development undermines or even reverses one of those critical properties, then we now can give you a tool, an easily applicable lens, through which you can view the effects that this creates,” says Komaitis. 

Trump’s recently announced “clean network” initiative, which involves banning Chinese apps TikTok and Huawei, has led to a resurgence in fears of a “splinternet” – a balkanised internet carved up by geography. 

Another issue that is currently attracting a lot of attention on both sides of the Atlantic is whether social media platforms should be liable for the content hosted on them. In the US, Trump attempted to undermine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – a bit of legislation that dictates that social media companies are platforms rather than publishers, and therefore not culpable for user content. Removing this piece of legislation would severely constrain the kind of posts that were allowed on social platforms. The platforms wouldn’t be any safer in the Democrats’ hands – Biden has said he’ll immediately revoke Section 230 if he gets in. 

Komaitis says there are legitimate concerns that policymakers face, including the proliferation of terrorist or extremist content on social platforms. However, he says that policymakers need to remember that these were not created by the internet itself. “These are human actions, human behaviour that is also found on the internet,” says Komaitis. He says that the Internet Society “strongly believe[s] that it is very, very rare that technical fixes can address societal problems”. A technological solution, such as more social media regulation, won’t solve the societal problems that feed into the behaviour. 

Another concern is that policymakers don’t necessarily understand the internet, or what is important to preserve about it. “As far as we’re concerned, it is the internet infrastructure that we need to preserve,” says Komaitis, saying that the underlying infrastructure is the “unsung hero” in the story. 

Komaitis says that at the moment, “there is a huge geopolitical shift happening globally, which inevitably will affect the internet”. He says that something we’re hearing more and more about is the desire to inject ‘values’ into the internet. “We’re hearing about European values, US values or Chinese values,” says Komaitis. “However, we never talk about the fact that the internet has its own values.”