The Internet’s third age: straddled between private interests and liberal principles

The Internet’s third age: straddled between private interests and liberal principles


The future of the Internet is around the corner. As opposed to the creation of tech oligopolies and the mass data collection of Web 2.0, everything seems to suggest we are on the horizon of a new, less global phase, one with greater public regulation and different ways of resisting any form of governance.

To date, the history of the Internet and digital technologies has lived through two ages. In the first, innovation was driven mainly by state institutions courtesy of public financing: the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) played a key role in developing the Internet and a host of patents like GPS, the microprocessor and lithium batteries. In Europe, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) based in Geneva (Switzerland) was where Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau implemented the first http protocol.

Some thirty years ago, the second digital age arose on the basis of these innovations. This age is characterised by large private enterprises capable of marketing these technologies worldwide, from which they obtain vast returns in exchange for increasingly more efficient services and products. Both of these economic phases were accompanied by the corresponding development of the Internet.

In the first model, information was transmitted over static sites without any possibility of interaction, to be subsequently followed by Web 2.0 in which developers and users took over the reins. Digitalisation has, therefore, always had two sides to it, the economic and the technological. Everything suggests we are facing a new change of phase.

Indeed, among the collateral consequences of the second Internet age you have the personal data collection abuses committed, not to mention the thrust towards the creation of supra-national oligopolies by the tech giants like Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta Platforms and Microsoft. Two different responses are being developed to face up to these challenges, which oppose each other in a lot of ways.

Legislative restrictions

On the one hand, we are witnessing governments and public bodies trying to recover status as the prime mover, no longer from an investor perspective, but rather by playing the role of regulators. They seek to come up with initiatives to enable platforms to legitimately nurture their business, but with clear limits imposed by the law makers.

In April 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, stated on the presentation of the Declaration of the Future of the Internet, “The Internet has brought humanity together, like never before in history. Today, for the first time, like-minded countries from all over the world are setting out a shared vision for the future of the Internet, to make sure that the values we hold true offline are also protected online…”.

A safer digital space

This approach also involves regulations, such as the European Union Personal Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2016 and the EU Digital Markets and Digital Services Acts which, as of 2024, purport to oversee competition and create a safer digital space. Even in the USA, political policy is endeavouring to supervise the behaviour of the big tech companies more closely in relation to fake news and data collection. Lastly, in the spring of 2021, the G7 reached a first agreement to back a Global Minimum Tax, a tax rate for multinationals, among which the digital conglomerates figure.

The other response to the demand for change takes the form of the call for Web3, the aim of which is to break the oligopoly of the big platforms by means of a model that cuts out the middlemen (disintermediation) using blockchain technology. Nevertheless, the idea behind this libertarian approach has given rise to many doubts, such as those expressed by the Keep the web free, say no to Web3 international campaign. 

According to its detractors, this supposed ‘future of the Internet’ “will only create a further socially and economically stratified society”. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, has also claimed that “You don’t own ‘Web3’. The VCs and their LPs do. It will never escape their incentives. It’s ultimately a centralized entity with a different label.

Whatever the case, it seems quite clear that we are facing a change that could very well shape a third Internet age, one that is less global and subject to greater regulation, albeit with different ways of resisting any form of governance. 

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