The online symposium on the value of Internet Openness at the time of COVID-19 is a joint outcome of the Internet Governance Forum coalition on Net Neutrality and Community Connectivity. This is the ninth article in the series. Read all the articles in the symposium here.

By Alejandro Pisanty

Keeping the Internet open and effective for communication and collaboration is vital for humankind in the struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn depends on deeply understanding the forces that may damage or hamper the Internet through intentional or unintentional abuse and misinterpretations of its role.

Six factors allow us to either peel away the novelty contributed by the Internet and discover underlying conducts and motivations, thus identifying the Internet’s specific contributions, or, in the inverse direction, to map from an offline conduct to its online possibilities. These are now refracted in the ongoing (at this date) first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Scaling

The Internet was designed to be able to scale up well. Some of its most visible effects on human conduct, business, and society are in the massive scaling up from individual, isolated activities, to those comprising hundreds or even thousands of millions of units, further amplified through network effects.)

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fraction of humankind has moved to stay-at-home, with mobility and contact diminished to an absolute minimum. For many, work-from-home (WFH) has become compulsory. Educational activities have been moved to the home as well, with schools closed for a long period of time (in some countries, to the point of abruptly terminating the school year.) Purchasing even the most basic of goods — including food and medical supplies — has reshaped e-commerce.

The Internet has responded remarkably well to this scale-up of activity. The last mile has suffered most while the core of Tier 1 networks have held up well. Suppliers of content, such as Netflix, or of connectivity, such as many ISPs, have adapted their offerings and continue to provide uninterrupted service even if this requires temporarily reducing quality by limiting video resolution in order to save bandwidth, in one example. ISPs and telcos, working together with regulators, have adapted price bundles and extended emergency communications for users.

Infrastructural components such as the DNS have responded well to increased and redistributed traffic; in some countries, domain-name registries and registrars are taking additional steps as precautions against fraud and other forms of domain-name abuse.

2. Identity

Identity management transforms online to offline conduct in critical ways. The lack of stringent identification requirements and mechanisms in the Internet layer leaves identity management to the edge of the network and to the higher layers, thus fostering anonymity and horizontality, for the good, and ease of spoofing and impersonation, for evil effects.

During the COVID-19 pandemic’s first onslaught, we are seeing the need for strong identification, authentication, and authorisation mechanisms in order to provide trust in e-commerce, and the ability to function securely in work from home. Disinformation campaigns are rife and cyber crime using COVID-19 as a lever is growing, both facilitated by anonymity and identity spoofing.

Organisations that already had in place strong ID management have been able to transit to remote forms of working. They not only had in place ID management, but also systems, software, data, data centers and cloud services, and organisational (“layer-8”) arrangements such as bylaws, rules, operations manuals and out of band communications to operate, while all non-essential workers work from outside the organisations’ facilities. Others have struggled with anything from “zoombombing” e-learning classes at schools to sophisticated intrusions.

Bad science, conspiracy theories, superstition, “fake news”, and disinformation are a grave concern during the pandemic. They make governments, companies, and people slow or unable to react to protect themselves. They can cause discrimination and hate even against essential medical personnel, and unnecessarily politicise the response to the crisis. In other words, they endanger millions of lives. The lack of an ascertained, trusted identity is a factor in their success, though solving that part of the problem would still leave us with the effects of gullibility and shortcomings in education.

Organisations such as WHO, governments, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, companies like Facebook and Google, and many in civil society have established active mechanisms to counter the spread and damage of misinformation. They, in turn, struggle with the identity-management problem, inwardly in making sure only authorised individuals use their networks, outwardly by filtering out unauthorised or overtly hostile spread of damaging content. Machine Learning and other automation techniques supplement human activity for analysing, filtering, and blocking content and malfeasant (often artificial) user accounts.

In the bigger picture, trust on the credibility of information sources depends on much more than identity; in many ways this is similar to the offline world, in which well identified sources spread lies and misinformation through print or broadcast.

3. Transjurisdictional

Nothing is more detestably transjurisdictional than a pandemic. A pandemic crosses borders and oceans, it spreads from country to country and from municipality to municipality. The virus doesn’t read the law as it plows along through the population.

However, institutional response to the pandemic is fractionalised over political borders, national and sub-national, and global response comes as an effort to counter this fragmentation through coordination efforts. Some are led by multilateral institutions like WHO, but many others occur through bilateral, regional, or “club” agreements,  through the private sector, through civil-society organisations, and often also through the spontaneous formation of cooperation networks. These share anything from medical and public-health knowledge to the files needed for 3D-printing of antimicrobial protection equipment.

This cooperation is facilitated by the trans-jurisdictional reach of the Internet. Attempts to apply regional or local blocking and filtering against certain content or sources in order to maintain territorial control have mostly failed.

The only hope for humankind to transcend the pandemic crisis lies in generalised cooperation across countries, organisations, and political systems. The trans-jurisdictional character of the Internet and the global cooperation it has induced over the last three or four decades will serve us well, including the examples of multistakeholder governance that will provide a laboratory for the future.

Of course, the trans-jurisdictional effects of the Internet are also at work in campaigns of fraud and phishing, that now use COVID-19 as a front. Authorities and groups such as the APWG (Anti-Phishing Working Group) are at work, dealing with these.

In addition, the Internet’s governance takes into account trans-jurisdictional effects and has been built up (somewhat designed but also grown organically) for global as well as local authorities’ remits. Lessons learned from Internet governance could be applied to the governance of responses to the pandemic. Some jurisdictions such as municipalities and city quarters enacted measures successfully, while others, even neighboring ones, haven’t. Would a global governance mechanism be able to absorb and disseminate the best local experiences and still allow for enough diversity in response? Would the imposition of a global set of rules be beneficial or deleterious? Alternatively, can a global cooperation arise, like for Internet governance, that is decentralised, oriented to problem-solving, and diverse enough? What is the balance and how is it to be achieved? Who are the stakeholders and how are they to be grouped, how are their votes to be weighted? What is the equivalent of “rough consensus and running code” for the global health system or at least its response to the COVID-19 and future pandemics, considering also its many ramifications in the economy, lives, and livelihoods? Another set of questions arises around process and timing; many Internet-governance processes are notoriously slow, complex, and uncertain. Can lessons learned include how to improve on them before they are applied to the health system? Compared with the present function of that system, are they or can they be better? (do they scale?, to begin with.)

4. Barrier lowering

As a consequence of its design principles of best effort, interoperability, openness, etc., the Internet has lowered the barriers for many activities worldwide. This barrier-lowering is both in rigorous economic terms — access to full industries and markets — and in less formal terms, like the formation of teams and companies in-country or across borders. While some would say that the COVID-19 pandemic is in itself an indirect, unwanted consequence of this barrier lowering, through the facilitation of travel and other exchanges, the response to the pandemic is unequivocally facilitated by this barrier lowering.

The exchange of information between laboratories and health authorities in the pandemic’s country of origin and elsewhere, communication to the public of risks and countermeasures, the formation of teams dealing with everything from clinical information to manufacturing, for information campaigns focused on specific groups like indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, the elderly. Educational content has sprung up and best practices have spread for the benefit of families, teachers, students, and children.

Of course there is a counterpart to this barrier lowering in the ease of formation of anti-confinement protests and, as mentioned earlier, in cyber crime and other abusive activity.

5. Friction reduction

Friction reduction is applied in the sense of economics as friction reduction in markets and as understood in the study of user experience. Friction reduction in markets works through information leading to more “perfect” markets where all actors are equally informed, with benefits like price transparency and competition. In user experience, friction reduction means less energy and steps involved to perform a desired action.We observe intense effects of friction reduction in response to the pandemic: facilitated access to health information and preventive measures, rapid traffic in the exchange of scientific knowledge and its processing which includes rejection of flawed publications in peer review, apps for tracking contagion and symptoms, and many more.

The downside of friction reduction is seen in the instant propagation of disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and health-damaging conduct. Are there ways to introduce friction differentially? Some of the main social-networking sites have taken measures such including notifications which share  trustworthy sources, thus creating at least a brief interval of time in which users can think twice before accessing and spreading damaging content. This certainly has not stopped the spread of disinformation, and is worthy of deeper analysis.

6. Memory effects

The Internet brings to humankind an unprecedented ability to remember, to keep record of events, and has been transformational for this among other reasons (our other five factors.) Digital technology also creates unprecedented opportunities for forgetting, and oblivion, when huge tracts of stored information are deleted, decay, or become inaccessible due to incompatibilities of media, software, or formats, and lack of foresight for these occurrences.

The memory of the world for the COVID-19 pandemic will be endowed with detail and data like none before. Even if the pandemic were suddenly stopped on its tracks by an almost miraculous combination of medication, treatment, and a vaccine, digging through the data generated will provide knowledge for decades to come. The detailed hard data of the biological aspect of the disease will be complemented with the emotional records of millions of individuals affected by either the disease itself, the lockdowns that were enacted to prevent its spread, or the consequences of both in the economy and in politics. Major economic and social trends will be discernible in the long term. We do need to make an active effort to preserve this record.Doing so will be a challenge in privacy and data protection; novelties like contact-tracking apps that tell Internet and mobile telephone users that they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, plus old-fashioned government and corporate records will likely expose massive digital assets that could allow severe intrusions into personal life. The balance of rights that appears adequate during the management of the pandemic may be woefully off later on. Accountability for political and public-health decisions will be enhanced by a trustworthy record. Parts of this record should be secured by strong digital signatures and possibly also open-ledger technologies.

Some key pieces of this record will be lost due to applications of some version of the “right to be forgotten” (RTBF) or pure revisionism. Librarians, archivists, historians, and citizens concerned with a “right to the truth” must actively preserve the record of the decisions made by governments and other entities in order to be able to process lessons learned from this trying period.

Concluding remarks

The 6F framework allows us to cut through many confounding factors that make discussions about “the Internet” confusing or even distorted. We can isolate human or social conduct and motivations and see how they are modified by their online expression. In the inverse direction, we can remove the Internet factor from complex phenomena and isolate their cores in human or social motivation. Thus “fake news” and disinformation are found at the core of the massive, frictionless campaigns going on in the media, gullibility and lack of education are found at the core of the consumption and re-diffusion of disinformation. Polarisation of political opinion exists widely in society; what the Internet, in its present form and through the most usual social media, does is to amplify it at scale and speed. The risks for openness arise from the same sources as openness itself: the combination of the Internet’s design with ancient — sometimes atavic — driving forces of human interaction. By being able to separate the core conduct from its Internet modification we are better able to address each separately; if disinformation about COVID-19 spreads fast, we can separately address the information itself and the means of its propagation. Again to take a concrete example, if low friction enables the fast propagation of polarisation or disinformation, one task is to address the polarisation and disinformation at the source, and another is to counter their frictionless propagation by introducing measures such as Facebook’s constant posting of credible, legitimate sources, or Twitter’s proposed signaling that a user may be about to tweet or retweet inflammatory language. This is an ongoing, global-scale experiment in which we all take part.

Acknowledgments: Part of the development of the 6F framework has taken place in discussions with Vinton G. Cerf, whose contribution is thankfully recognised. Luca Belli’s invitation and patience, and Nikhil Pawha’s insightful editing were invaluable.

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Alejandro Pisanty is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, former Chair of ISOC Mexico, Trustee of ISOC, Board of Directors of ICANN, Head of Academic Computing Services at UNAM.