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In a remarkably short time, the Internet, and the World Wide Web which sits upon it, have become critical infrastructure for governments, the military, companies and individuals alike.

It can come as something as a surprise, therefore, to discover that the Internet itself is a complex, ad hoc sociotechnical jumble of systems, protocols, standards and hardware, bundled together by the domain name system, information intermediaries, security systems, exchange points, autonomous systems, Internet service providers, registers, databases and standards bodies; some national and some international organisations; public bodies, private companies, and non-profits.

The Internet has two technical requirements: decentralisation, where no-one is in charge and anyone can join; and identification, via the unique Internet Protocol address. The original ideal was openness, with information flowing freely and efficient engineering, with ideological appeal to libertarians, hippies and anarchists. This Silicon Valley open vision creates a network without central authority. As Niall Ferguson and Helen Margetts have argued, this vision is attractive, but problematic. Networks can be disruptive of stability, while the need for identification creates potential threats to privacy.

Wendy Hall and I argue in our recent pamphlet for the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Four Internets, that influential alternatives have emerged. The Brussels bourgeois vision imagines a nicely-behaved, lightly regulated Internet where openness is still prized, but privacy is protected and trolling and fake news suppressed. The Washington DC commercial vision notes the immense innovation that surveillance, oligopoly and ‘walled gardens’ have produced, and advocates markets and property rights. Meanwhile, the Beijing paternal vision fancies surveillance for social control to address issues like security, social cohesion, health and wellbeing, transport or climate change.

These are not the only visions possible, but they have support from major geopolitical actors working to establish their principles among the protocols and institutions of Internet governance. Their coexistence doesn’t mean the Internet is falling apart, but the struggle between them is affecting the way it is run.

Human nature being what it is, there is another, the ‘Moscow Mule’ vision, a spoiler which weaponises the hacking ethos with a paranoid and nihilistic nationalism to use the infrastructure to spread mistrust. It cares not which Internet as long as there is one to troll. Most governments spread some misinformation, but some are dedicated practitioners, with not only Russia, but Iran, Venezuela and North Korea offenders.

Technological trends make this a problem now. For example, Artificial Intelligence algorithms are fuelled by data from the Web, e-commerce and social networks. The European data market is highly regulated and fragmented, unlike the US, where the corresponding advantages accrue to the tech giants. In China, data protection is very different, and its private sector conforms to the Party line. The future of AI in competing regions will depend on the Internet architecture’s facilitation of data gathering and flow.

George Bush once fantasised an ‘Axis of Evil’. Today, there is a scarier axis of nations pursuing aggressive nationalism combined with impatience with due process internally and internationally. The ‘Axis of Incivility’, founded by the US, China and Russia, now includes Egypt, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, the Philippines, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The competing visions of the Internet will get entangled in their drive for international recognition, power and coalition-building. The benefits of cooperation, openness, privacy and bourgeois stability, are unlikely to cut much ice; this awkward squad is not looking for win-wins.

Each vision, save the ‘Moscow Mule’, has its merits. Openness has given voice to many. Oligopoly has produced genuinely valuable and free services, and networks of undreamt-of complexity and density. Privacy and social cohesion are public goods. It is not possible to force agreement between differing geopolitical forces and ideologies. It is therefore imperative to develop governance principles that simultaneously accept the range of views about the Internet in society, preserve the open standards that have made it revolutionary and successful, and ensure that human dignity and privacy are respected.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate fellow of Bright Blue and associate professor at the University of Southampton. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.