The promise of web 2.0 was the emergence of a user-driven Internet where content was produced organically through online engagement, notably via social media. The simultaneous rise of big data reflected a similar trend: extracting value from the patterns of user interactions, transactions, and contributions.
The enthusiasm for web 3.0 is pinned on connected and so-called ‘smarter’ systems where all devices from phones to homes and automobiles function seamlessly. The notion of a smarter community (a label admittedly dating back to the 1990s) is thus driven by not only the collective intelligence of users, but of a blended interface of human and artificial intelligence.
Yet while web 2.0 was widely viewed as democratizing, subsequent phases of digital governance like 3.0 may instead be characterized by a penchant for control – especially by governments. Autocratic-minded ‘democratic’ regimes such as those of Egypt and Turkey have sought to limit Internet freedoms (at times seeking to shut down social media platforms entirely). China is reportedly devising a public surveillance system to track and rate the social behaviour of citizens.
Add to the mix Russia’s autocratic patrolling of its own online spaces – and its growing cyber-interventions in the US, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere (antics that may well find reciprocation within an ‘America first’ security and intelligence apparatus), and the future of the Internet can begin to look rather ominous.
For Facebook, some tricky questions emerge. Having long sought entry into China, would Facebook be an indirect partner in monitoring social behaviour (not unlike Chinese social media companies today)? Although Facebook often espouses democratization (a claim not entirely without merit), it is also a walled garden and proprietary in many respects. Accordingly, its flagship global initiative (internet.org) seeks wider Internet access in developing countries, albeit with limited tools and platforms, beginning with those provided by the company itself.
Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies also face shifting sands at home. Prior to taking Office, then-candidate Trump criticized Apple’s privacy stance, insisting that technology companies do all they can to assist government. He means it. As President, one of his moves was to appoint a critic of net neutrality to head up the Federal Communications Commission.
Trump had also been a critic of President Obama’s moves to transfer more regulatory control over the Internet’s domain name system away from the US Department of Commerce to a more neutral and multi-stakeholder body (ICANN).
In truth, the Internet has always been about a co-existence of freedom and control, open and proprietary – with various events and actors shifting the balance in one direction or another.
Within North America, Canada arguably faces a moment not unlike 9/11 when the federal government faced immense pressure to align policies and share information with US authorities. Today, the starkly contrasting visions of both countries today in terms of borders, immigration, and refugees is surely not unnoticed by the White House.
As borders become more physical and virtual, it is likely that the price to pay for ongoing trade and openness along the northern border will be greater monitoring and surveillance of human flows between both countries. It is disturbingly ironic that as Trump builds walls and erects tariffs to the south, Canada has instead relaxed visa requirements for Mexicans traveling to this country (a move also likely to garner attention within Trump’s inner circle).
Not so long ago, John Manley (arguably Canada’s first digital Minister) was part of an initiative of the Council of Foreign Relations that spurred calls for more continental political integration and for European-stylized mechanisms to support Mexican economic development.
Subsequently, albeit unrelated, there were tentative meetings of federal CIO’s from the three countries to explore alignment and cooperation within the realm of e-government. Any such trilateral governance notions now seem quaintly naïve in the face of increasingly separate and diverging bilateral relations.
Rather than deepening freedom and democracy globally (an essential aspect of globalization for trade-dependent countries such as Canada, and central to the US’s digital outlook prior to the arrival of Trump), the Internet risks becoming a platform for repression and control within countries – and new divisions amongst them. Such is the new world order confronting Canada’s policy-makers and technology leaders.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie