December 2nd, 2013
10:53 AM ET

The end of the World Wide Web?

By Bhaskar Chakravorti, Special to CNN

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.

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.

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soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Greg

    This sounds like a good idea whose time has come. Yes, we Americans did abuse our power here as we did in the Middle East through the fault of the self serving, power hungry, right-wing politicians in Washington D.C. This abuse is and was unwarranted!

    December 2, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Johnathan

      It's always right wings isn't it? Always deflecting the blame, move to Venezuela and liquidize yourself already.

      December 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • novaskyland

      We fund the world, we keep the world safer than it would be without our protection and influence. We grow the world economy, it's because of AMERICAN companies that China is finding success in industry and manufacturing. The middle east deserves every missile and bullet for all the terrorist attacks that have been going on in the world. And if people seriously thought that they have privacy while on the internet, then they need a reality check because EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD spies on each other and collects this sort of information.

      December 2, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Thank you novaskyland for grossly overestimating America's economic power. In fact, we're still languishing in a severe depression here at home and we managed to far more harm than any good in both the Middle East and Central Asia. If we'd only butt out of the internal affairs of other countries, they will eventually be better off. Remember the Belle Epoch(1880-1914) in Europe when it prospered?

        December 2, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
      • Lyndsie Graham

        Please novaskyland, get over your stupid hatred for the Middle Easterners. The truth is, is that ignorance breeds fear and fear in turn breeds hatred and hatred breeds right-wing faaticism. It's as simple as that!

        December 2, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
      • Geoff Jones

        The WWW, invented and developed in the UK. Shut down in the USA. Cheers for being so big and powerful. Keep borrowing from China. Keep pocking your fingers in to others business and see how well you do. You are an A$$.

        December 3, 2013 at 7:20 am |
  2. 100 % Innocent Eth

    "The end of the World...?"

    Wow! Dear writer was/is in such kind of state of mind, that he/she could believes.

    However, such... arguments with the writer is a challenge, since the sign of the time is support him/her.

    Most likely, according to the HOLY BIBLE, the end of the World or near end is written on the Book of Revelation.

    December 2, 2013 at 11:34 am | Reply
  3. jgreen52013

    TO: The NEW YORKER

    Please Forward to Malcolm Gladwell….I have 11 books on Amazon/Kindle….not that any are selling that well….but I want to tell you a story about a theory that is covered in several of the books.

    Prevailing thought in Washington, as well as by most Americans, and the leaders in the OECD, is:

    Fix the market, and this will in turn fix unemployment—but I say NO-just the opposite is true—Fix unemployment, and this will fix the market–and I have found that I am definitely a “David” in trying to make this point.

    During the 2008 election the electorate spoke loud and clear—Fix Unemployment. With majorities in all three branches, I thought the Democrats would employ Public Law 15 USC § 3101, which provided them with the Legal Authorization to limit our unemployment to “3%”. In short, at no time should our unemployment in America exceed “3%”.

    To my dismay—the Democrats opted for the former, above, with employment now being restored at a snail’s pace, and the result has been a disaster [I believe the 2010 election was retaliation for not fixing unemployment, and also ushered in a House full of lunatics]!

    The Democrats would have had broad public support in 2010, with 3% unemployment, and now that is in jeopardy for 10 years, and it left us with a Washington in paralysis.

    Also, according to the CBO, on our current path, it will be 2017 for us to get back to even an anemic 5.5%, with unemployment benefits long since expired—and if the market fails, the jobless are out of luck….

    The puzzlement for me is why would our brightest and best make such a critical error? The solution to a problem is measured by results—and the data, alone, shows this result to be miserable.

    Further, this is not limited to our leaders in America—and is also true in most of the OECD, with Eurozone in excess of 10%, as I write, and 25% in Greece and Spain, common. I would add that I believe all of these leaders are genuinely concerned with fixing joblessness.

    So, I ask, why do our leaders keep applying 1950’s economic theory, in a 21st Century economy—particularly, given the most serious social problem facing us today, widespread unemployment?

    And my take is because it is based on a pervasive, but false, “belief”:

    “The belief that the market can provide anybody wanting a job, with a job”–[it is bedrock for Republicans[1], and let’s not forget that pervasive belief once had it that the world was flat]. And thus they have framed their policies and laws to solve unemployment, based on this “belief”….

    But, this hasn’t been true since the mid-1970’s, and “High and persistent unemployment has pervaded almost every OECD country since the mid-1970’s”, according to Dr. William F. Mitchell, and every credible economist.

    What happened in the mid-1970’s as a result of a shift in the world economy, is open to debate—I believe it was the result of the colliding forces of automation, globalization, etc., reaching a critical mass in the mid-1970’s—i.e., we became victims of our success, and since, we have celebrated automation in the workplace and then got a “deer in the headlights” regarding the displaced employee. In the U.S. we defined the effect of this economic shift as “malaise”.

    In sum, the world has changed, our solution to address unemployment hasn’t, and the result has been a disaster.

    My solution is The Neighbor-To-Neighbor Job Creation Act [hereafter NTN]: A federally mandated, Social Insurance, owned by our employed to provide a fund to hire/train our unemployed. For a modest 4% of salary policy cost we can create more “private-sector” jobs in 6 months, than our current path [HR 2847], in 6 years. Further, this has strong political support–86% of Americans believe that “anybody willing to work should be able to find a job….” [a quote from President Obama in “The Audacity of Hope”].

    Finally, the market thrives when we have a robust, employed, consuming workforce [FULL EMPLOYMENT IS A PRO-MARKET CONCEPT and ECONOMIC INCLUSIVISM: NEO-CAPITALISM Inclusive Pro-Market Solutions To Our Social Problems, on Amazon/Kindle]—high unemployment/sluggish recovery is not a non sequitur. NTN is a “win-win” solution—The unemployed win, and the market wins.

    Jim Green, Democrat candidate for Congress, 2000 http://www.Inclusivism.org

    [1] The Republicans assert [as if it were fact] cut taxes for the 1%, they will build factories with the windfall of cash—and we will all have a job in the corporation—it is BS—been there, did that—[Reaganomics] it has a 7 year shelf-life before the economy collapses [1987 & 2008], it drove us into a $10 trillion hole to dig out of, $6 trillion more to clean up their mess, and a 11.1 million job loss–

    A BRIEF ADDENDUM: If one concludes that the market cannot provide everybody wanting a job, with a job—then they have to look elsewhere to solve the problem of unemployment—and this, I believe, is the perceived conundrum faced by those charged with fixing our unemployment crisis—their only choice is “public-sector” jobs, and many fear this will compete with “private-sector” jobs—but this is specious–for one, the employees are doing different things—and in the trade-off there is a far greater loss to the market by not employing an expanding and contracting public workforce [the Buffer Stock Employment Model]–that expands during downturns in the market and contracts as employees return to the private sector—Humphrey-Hawkins had it on the nose in limiting our unemployment to 3%. Three indispensable components in creating a buffer stock of employees, includes: 1] it would be based on the premise that we have far more work that needs to be done, than persons to fill these jobs [“make-work” jobs, is archaic thinking]. 2] It must have renewable funding [this is not a “jump-start” solution, as currently practiced], and 3] it will not add a dime to our deficit. American law still has one foot on the plantation–American “employees” are seen as “A Pool Of Slaves”, on Amazon—[persons without rights], to be used and discarded “at will”—

    http://www.amazon.com/James-L.-Jim-Green/e/B001KHZIMM/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

    December 2, 2013 at 11:52 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      @jgreen2013:
      Thank you. I just laughed until my stomach was very upset.

      December 2, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        I especially liked the title of his August 2012 tome: "Why President Obama Lost The 2012 Election: A Wake Up Call"

        December 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  4. banasy©

    If there were to be an end to the WWW, whatever would the trolls do? Go back to pulling wings off of flies?

    December 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Funny

      December 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  5. ChicagoRich

    I agree with the vast benefits of the free flow of information on the internet. Measures do need to be taken to safeguard the internet. I do not believe that turning over from one trusted agent to an international body is the answer though, just look at how well the U.N. has been functioning lately as an example. I would not agree that the U.S. should give up control, however I would suggest that rules on what can and can not be done be clarified and that we stick to those rules in order to restore confidence in the responsible governance of the internet. It is too valuable to the World, not just the U.S. to risk it being torn apart. In spite of the imperfections in the U.S., it is still the safest hand in which to put the internet, just keep specific rules on what U.S. government agencies, or any other government for that matter, can and cannot do with data and services via the internet.

    December 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • Greg

      Do you honestly believe what you posted above, ChicagoRich? No one with any sense can trust NSA these days! Edward Snowden did us all a great service by blowing the whistle on NSA.

      December 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  6. novaskyland

    So people think government should get more involved with health care and the economy but completely freak out when it comes to internet "privacy"???

    December 2, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Seriously??? Two term limits took up a WHOLE book? Lol, now THATS funny @ banasy.

    December 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    Oops my bad! I read that wrong thought it was the next election.

    December 2, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    The internet is more dangerous than guns! Now thats something to ponder eh?

    December 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  10. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    On topic, Snowden is not a hero.
    Surveillance of my phone and web activity is fine as long as it keeps me safer from terrorism.
    If President Obama knows what German politicians do, I'm sure that they know what he does, as completely as they can. I hope that our surveillance is the best in the world.
    Snowden is a traitor. Let him live in Russia, which was much better under the Czars.

    December 3, 2013 at 7:35 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Please Joey, stop belching out your ignorance on this web page by ranting against Edward Snowden, will you? Even a complete moron knows that Edward Snowden is a hero since he did us all a great service through his whistle blowing. Quit apologizing for those crooked politicians in Washington! Besides, what did they ever do for you?

      December 3, 2013 at 7:59 am | Reply
  11. chrissy

    Lol @ Joey, do you really think the NSA isnt a terrorism organization?

    December 3, 2013 at 7:41 am | Reply
  12. Rob

    It is important that the internet remain "free and open". Ultimate dominance, control and abuse by large corporate or government/pseudo government bodies will only serve to detract from the effectiveness and benefits provided in the above examples.

    December 3, 2013 at 10:01 am | Reply
  13. Best

    We should all go out and buy a Ferrari and sent the invoice to President Obama who runs the most generous Country in the World.:)

    December 16, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  14. World Ventures Review

    Valuable info. Fortunate me I found your site by chance, and I'm surprised why this coincidence did not happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

    January 4, 2014 at 1:31 am | Reply

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