What a “Splinternet” Means for eCommerce
Tech experts are bracing for a battle for the open internet in the coming decade. They see four key threats to our current, relatively open, system of connectivity. What are they and what do they mean for eCommerce businesses?
Four Net Threats
These are the findings of the fourth publication from the Pew Research Center in their The Web at 25 series: Net Threats (in collaboration with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University). The Web at 25 celebrates the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
The majority of the experts canvassed in the 2014 Future of the Internet study are hopeful that there will not be significant changes for the worse. However, some express “wide levels of concern” that the internet will be challenged by trends that could sharply disrupt the relatively unfettered way it has worked up to now.
In particular, the canvassed experts fear four key threats to the open internet:
- Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the internet.
- Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.
- Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
- Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might overcompensate and actually thwart content sharing.
Indeed it seems like we’re coming to a crossroads that will determine the future of the internet. The fallout from the Snowden revelations of mass surveillance by the NSA, and the battle for net neutrality as the FCC seeks to impose new “open internet” regulations, are issues that will shape the very fabric of the internet into the future.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Gordon M. Goldstein, The End of the Internet, expressed similar fears about the potential for net fragmentation.
Fierce and rising geopolitical conflict over control of the global network threatens to create a balkanized system—what some technorati, including Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, have called “the splinternet.”
Countries that value privacy—like Brazil and the European Union—are rushing to find alternatives to the US-dominated internet as they seek to protect their own data and the data of their citizens.
A number of other countries are requiring that certain types of data must be stored locally within their borders, a trend termed “data nationalism.”
Implications for ECommerce
If nations or regions succeed in segmenting the internet, it will have serious implications for eCommerce businesses. Our ability to serve a global market will be severely reduced. We may have to comply with a dizzying array of standards and regulations across the world. We may be cut off entirely from certain markets.
Some small players may think that they will benefit from being prevented from competing with giants like Amazon and Google, who may lose their their global dominance in the face of a fractured internet. However, this view is myopic.
While there will certainly be some short-term winners from a segmented, protectionist internet, over time most of us will lose. As Goldstein explains:
If the long history of international commerce tells us anything, it is this: free trade is neither a natural nor an inevitable condition… In the absence of a strong liberal ethos, promoted and enforced by a global leader, states seem drawn, as if by some spell, toward a variety of machinations (tariffs, quotas, arcane product requirements) that provide immediate advantages to a few domestic companies or industries—and that lead to collective immiseration over time.
What Can We Do?
So what can we do to try to preserve the open internet? As Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, explained to the Pew Center researchers:
I don’t know which force—censorship or spying—will lead to greater degradation of net freedoms. Both come from government. Nonetheless, I still hold hope that technologists and hackers can stay one step ahead of slow government and rob them of their stakes claimed in the net. Thus I also hope that technologists—programmers, mathematicians, statisticians, et al—will begin robust discussion of the ethics that govern their own power and how they will use it for public good.
Open Source Supports an Open Net
Here at Prospress, we support the preservation of the open internet.
For example, one of the advantages of using an open-source eCommerce platform, like WooCommerce, over a hosted platform is that the platform can be readily customised to the unique regulations of each country—if the doomsday “balkanisation” scenario does happen.
The core platform can also hopefully be as close to “universally” compliant as any single piece of software can be. German eCommerce companies are already obliged to follow much stricter regulations than those from most other countries, and WooCommerce has received contributions from German nationals who understand those regulations and want to help other German companies comply.
These are the sorts of reasons why we’re backing an open-source option, because even in the doomsday scenario of a splinternet, open-source software can still help entrepreneurs everywhere.