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History is filled with supposed lost utopias, and there is no greater cliché than to see one’s own era as a lamentable decline from a previous golden age. Sometimes, however, clichés are right. And as we explored the Internet’s future for this issue’s lead package, it became clear this was one of those times. Contemplating where we have come from digitally and where we are heading, it’s hard not to feel increasingly wistful and nostalgic.
The last few decades have witnessed the growth of an American-sponsored Internet open to all, and that has helped tie the world together, bringing wide-ranging benefits to billions. But that was then; conditions have changed.
Other great powers are contesting U.S. digital leadership, pushing their own national priorities. Security threats appear and evolve constantly. Platforms that were supposed to expand and enrich the marketplace of ideas have been hijacked by trolls and bots and flooded with disinformation. And real power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few private tech giants, whose self-interested choices have dramatic consequences for the entire world around them.
Whatever emerges from this melee, it will be different from, and in many ways worse than, what we have now.
Adam Segal paints the big picture well. “The Internet has long been an American project,” he writes. “Yet today, the United States has ceded leadership in cyberspace to China.” What will happen if Beijing continues its online ascent? “The Internet will be less global and less open. A major part of it will run Chinese applications over Chinese-made hardware. And Beijing will reap the economic, diplomatic, national security, and intelligence benefits that once flowed to Washington.”
Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys, outlines India’s unique approach to these issues, which is based on treating “digital infrastructure as a public good and data as something that citizens deserve access to.” Helen Dixon, Ireland’s data protection commissioner, presents a European perspective, arguing that giving individuals control over their own data—as the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU’s historic new regulatory effort, aims to do—is essential to restoring the Internet’s promise. And Karen Kornbluh, a veteran U.S. policymaker, describes how the United States dropped the digital ball and what it could do to pick it up again.
Finally, Michèle Flournoy and Michael Sulmeyer explain the new realities of cyberwarfare, and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Thomas Ramge consider the problems caused by Big Tech’s hoarding of data and what can be done to address it.
A generation from now, people across the globe will no doubt revel in the benefits the Internet has brought. But the more thoughtful among them will also lament the eclipse of the founders’ idealistic vision and dream of a world connected the way it could—and should— have been.