There’s something funny going on with the internet. It’s growing up. What began in the mid-1960s as a government project, and became the commercial internet in the 1990s, no longer looks like an infant playmate – more like an adolescent with incredible abilities and a range of problems.
Back when the internet was a youth, we viewed it through a utopian lens. It was something fun that would turn the world upside down, giving anyone, anywhere the chance to create, connect, play, learn and earn. As the The New York Times Magazine put it in “So the Internet Didn’t Turn Out the Way the Way We Hoped. Where Do We Go From Here,” it was as if “connecting the world could bring about new social virtues at no social cost.”
That unequivocally laudatory view has all but vanished with continuous reports of online abuses, misuses, backfires and brand new challenges of an always-on world. Now we’re realizing that interconnecting the world “by its very nature also brings about confounding new social situations, whether it’s the problem of disinformation seeded and spread by organized propagandists or the mind-bendingly obsessive culture of online fandom,” as the Times wrote.
The internet may no longer be a unified, harmless platform. The rise of a parallel Chinese internet, censorship, and various other government interventions are making the internet in one country different than the internet in another. Our digital adolescent has become a child with discernible problems.
Policymakers today need to meet internet issues where they are. The fears that we have for the internet – that stubborn gaps in coverage will remain, that it will become an arm of a hostile power, that it will undermine our privacy – need to take center stage in our policies that govern it.
For all of its problems, we still love the internet (it’s the first name in Internet Innovation Alliance, after all). But we understand the need to grapple with its growing pains. For us to give it the guidance it needs, we have to wipe the slate clean and reassess where rules are most needed.
Over the past decade, the internet policy debate has focused almost solely on internet service providers, but ISPs are just one segment in the internet ecosystem. None of the top 25 largest internet companies in the world are ISPs. A myopic policy focus fails to reflect the reality of the internet of today.
Now that the internet is growing up, it’s time to take a step back so we can see the whole picture. It’s time to look at the internet as a vast system comprised of many parts. Now that we have a better understanding of what the internet really is – challenges and all – we can get the internet that we want and need…through appropriate policy based on the realities in plain sight.