Does the Internet have a future?

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As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Gibson himself isn’t sure how he came up with the idea. But uneven distribution looks like a good call these days.

Recent developments indicate the U.S. digital divide has reached a stubborn pause; global growth of Internet access has slowed dramatically; and the “public” Internet is on its way to breaking up into three large pieces.

US market saturated

In September, the Pew Research Center announced that after a long period of growth, the share of Americans who go online, use social media or own key devices has plateaued. The market is saturated, with a catch: it’s only saturated among consumers already participating in digital life.

Over 60 million Americans are unable or unwilling to use the Internet in their daily lives. They include people over 60, those without a college education, living in low-income households or rural communities, and those who simply aren’t interested in new technologies. They’re missing out on the countless opportunities the Internet has made possible, like job hunting, homework resources and access to government services.

Which brings us to an emerging risk on the other side of the divide. For millions of consumers who decide not to upgrade their iPhone, what’s waiting around the corner? An even more intrusive onslaught of advanced consumer technologies. As consumers repurpose their mindshare and electronic budgets, Silicon Valley will be waiting with chips you implant under your skin, robots for your home, autonomous cars, and the billions of smart devices becoming part of the Internet of Things.

Devices like “smart” TVs and fridges have been shown time and again to be dumb and dumber, as the wags at TechDirt relish explaining: appliances that leak email credentials, Barbie dolls that spy on kids, and, oh yes, vibrators that collect “sensitive” data about customer usage.

But nothing short of a huge calamity is going to slow down the retail IoT industry. It’s looking to fix that market failure called saturation by introducing new products that are cheaper than smartphones, have novel features — and will let the vendors get away with terrible or even non-existent security features. The graph above (from Statista) shows that, even as Pew has old-fashioned devices like smartphones plateauing, smart speakers with intelligent personal assistants are providing renewed hope for a gadget-filled future.

Global access slowdown

Last week The Guardian cited an unreleased ITU report showing a “dramatic slowdown” in the global growth of Internet access. The world was on track to achieve the UN’s goal of affordable Internet access “for all” by 2020. But about half the world’s population — 3.8 billion people — remain unconnected, a revelation that has taken even international development experts by surprise. As the graph shows, the growth slowdown has been developing for years, dropping from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% in 2017.

Those least likely to be connected are the rural poor and an “alarming proportion” of women, especially African women. Location will often determine whether a carrier wants to build a network. If the density isn’t there, the ROI isn’t there. But it’s not just geography.

Access also needs to be affordable. The network must offer content that appeals to end-users and that’s available in a familiar language. In many traditional societies, there’s another barrier unrelated to technology: the expectation that women should not own personal property of any kind, including mobile phones. All the A.I. in Silicon Valley isn’t going to fix that kind of social injustice any time soon.

Balkanization

I’ve always argued “Internet” in the phrase “the Internet” should be capitalized. But it’s becoming apparent the global public Internet may eventually cease to be singular for reasons having nothing to do with semantics or the IP address space, and everything to do with geo-politics. And money. As the New York Times headlined it last week in a piece from their editorial board: There May Soon Be Three Internets. America’s Won’t Necessarily Be the Best. One for America, one for China, one for Europe.

The reasons are depressingly familiar. The Internet has become an unholy mess thanks to the predations of trolls, spies, cyber-warriors, incumbent ISPs, religious zealots, misogynists, dictators, incumbent Republicans and countless other assholes.

Not to mention the usual suspects of Valley fame. The editors bemoan the 2017 accident at Amazon Web Services that affected huge numbers of online services across the world. It calls out Google, which went to China, left in a fit of moral indignation, went back years later, is tinkering with a repressive search engine called Dragonfly to please Beijing, denies it’s serious about Dragonfly, bla bla bla.

The staggering degree of concentration of ownership on the Internet — for which Washington deserves plenty of blame — now guarantees that bad things intended and unintended will henceforth be much worse for all of us. The Times sums up our Internet future as a “tripartite cold war” with America squaring off against both Europe and China — and Silicon Valley busy making money on all three sides.

Sounds like an alternate history cooked up by William Gibson.

D.E.