Documentary coverage of IGF-USA by the Imagining the Internet Center

Internet Governance Forum-USA 2011 Potential-future scenario discussion: Regionalization of the Internet

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Brief description:

IGF participants broke into three different rooms to discuss three different, possible potential-future scenarios for the Internet in 2025. In this session, the brief description given to the discussants asked them to respond to the idea of the “Regionalization of the Internet”- a future in which the mostly global Internet we know today becomes more divided, with certain aspects isolated from others based on their geographic or economic similarities. The description noted that, “natural and man-made disasters could easily accelerate this process, leading to an alternate future where the differences between these islands is more pronounced and e-conflict between regions becomes a significant national security and economic development issue.”

Details of the session:

Garland McCoy of the Technology Education Institute and Andrew Mack and Alessandra Carozza of AMGlobal were at the front of the room to facilitate a wide-ranging discussion of the Regionalization of the Internet potential-future scenario at the Internet Governance Forum-USA 2011 at Georgetown University Law Center July 18.

This scenario sets up a divisive future for the Internet. You can read the full description used to launch this discussion in PDF format at the following link:

The key drivers were to consider as causes for regionalization of the Internet:

  • National and corporate security concerns and increased pressure from non-state actors based in “failed state” regions of the world.
  • Global economic weakness, budget crises and significant, systemic unemployment.
  • Shortages of food and raw materials leading to rises in the prices for commodities, food and energy and supply chain/trade disruptions.
  • A rising “black market” dominated by narco/political/religious groups with increasing technical sophistication.
  • Expansion of IPv6 and the “Internet of things” creates an environment where citizens can be easily tracked within a region and where a market in false identities flourishes.

While it was considered a “bleak scenario” by its participants and moderators, the majority of the discussants in this possible potential-future scenario session indicated that the majority of the outcomes that were outlined are not only plausible, but that some are already occurring, and occurring at a faster rate than maybe previously anticipated.

JULY 18, 2011 - Members of the audience participated in Regionalization of the Internet, a session held during the Internet Governance Forum USA 2011. Conference attendees were encouraged to enter into discussion during the day's events.

Scenario facilitator Andrew Mack described the regionalization scenario as unique among the other scenarios presented today in that it is “the only scenario that is actually coming to pass.”

“A good chunk is plausible, said Leslie Martinkovics, an IGF participant from Verizon Communications. “When we’re looking at what’s happening today, there are a series of pressures, some economic, some security related. These are all real. There is a growing feeling that change is coming.”

Security is seen as the paramount concern for many areas of the world, prompting some regions to block certain domains, like the “Great Firewall of China.” The problem is that this blocking process is easily circumvented. George Ou of Digital Society maintained that the “Great Wall” is often considered “porous.” China was mentioned as a key player in the rising challenges facing the argument against regionalization. Other country governments listed as key “players” in the conversation included Brazil, Iran and India.

“Any attempts to isolate, to protect, fail,” said Bill Smith, a participant from PayPal. Attempts at blocking, he said, “are doomed to fail as well.”

The proliferation of the hacking group Anonymous in the Arab Spring was a catalyst for discussion surrounding the viability of regulating such isolated Webs, or “islands,” or whether a more unitary Internet is more desirable.

“In order to dissuade users from building up isolated Webs, it’s important to build up the single, unitary net and make it better,” Smith said.

“The Internet,” said Sally Wentworth of the Internet Society, “is a tool. It is not the cause, it’s an enabler. People want to communicate, people want to create. It’s very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle and carve it up.”

Because there is a fundamental need for communication across islands, it was asserted by a number of participants that regionalization may not even be possible. The Arab Spring, Wentworth and others explained, is an example of an inability to maintain separate communities within the greater Web.

The existence of dark nets was referenced as a refutation of the inherent nature of a unitary Web. Scott McCormick explained that dark nets, which are essentially intranets, have existed for quite some time. North Korea, he contended, is a dark net and has been for a while, with very few people who have access to it. Governments like North Korea’s have opted out of a global, unitary Web, but the moderators and panelists questioned whether that action is truly possible.

JULY 18, 2011 - Members of the audience participated in Regionalization of the Internet, a session held during the Internet Governance Forum USA 2011. Conference attendees were encouraged to enter into discussion during the day's events.

“Can you really opt out?” Mack asked. He noted that existing within the metaphorical “castle,” or within the isolated intranet, does not necessarily mean that there is still isolation within the castle itself. And living in the castle does not necessarily guarantee protection.

“If all your people don’t live in the castle, you can’t protect them,” Mack said.

There are technical hindrances to fragmenting the Web. When countries try, they are doing so at the DNS level, not at the IP level, according to McCormick. This is what makes it easy for users with means and motivation to work around the blockages. The introduction of IPv6 will greatly affect the nature of users to navigate those blockades because it will make it much harder to memorize IP addresses, which is the way most users avoid the blockages, McCormick said.

Those in the group in favor of regionalization felt that isolation might make security more plausible and more manageable. Tom Lowenhaupt, who advocates for the development of a .nyc TLD, explained that top-level domains (TLDs) are the way to enable regionalization. Applying security to those TLDs enables a more private, more secure and more manageable, intuitive Internet. Those against regionalization offered that it may open doors to a host of other more problematic issues—the goal is the minimum amount of regulation for the most effectiveness, Smith said.

The future governance of the Internet will be determined by three major players: general users who may not feel a personal stake in Internet governance; the criminal element, like Anonymous, which has a major stake in Internet governance, but that may be undesirable; and a disaffected group that may not feel it has a stake until circumstances start to change. What will come to pass remains to be seen, but the timeline, everyone agreed, is moving far faster than originally anticipated.

– Bethany Swanson


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