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Future Structures of the Internet

CDT continues to focuses on the underlying physical and policy structures that allow the internet to flourish. As we look forward to the next 20 years, this work on core internet structures will only become more important as we consider issues around access, governance, and structures. Here are some of the issues we will be working on and the questions we’ll strive to answer.

Access to Information

  • The internet is one of the greatest tools for self-expression and access to information ever. But too many people – especially in the developing world – lack internet access. What policies and practices can address these issues?
  • One of the great equalizers for access to information online is the preponderance of free services largely supported by advertising. What do the rise of ad blockers mean for this ecosystem and for journalism and the news business? What are possible alternative models to the ad-based internet?

Rules for Governance and Governments

  • The internet is made up of networks of servers and globe-spanning wires, and it is inextricably bound up with the ‘real world’. Who “runs” the internet? How does it interact not just with end users but also regulators and governments?
  • The distributed nature of the web creates challenges for law enforcement. As information flows across national borders what rules should governments follow? Should the focus be on where data is stored, the nationality of the subject of the investigation, or part of a collaborative process between governments?

Infrastructure and Standards

  • The infrastructure of the internet has changed remarkably over more than thirty years, while the basic functionality it enables has not – sending information in groups of “packets” from one place to another. Technical standards venues like the IETF and the W3C must increasingly grapple with how infrastructure enables or thwarts human rights online, such as by enabling censorship and undermining user privacy. But what is the right way to champion non-technical – often somewhat political – concepts in technical venues? Do efforts to locate more functionality “in the middle” of the network necessarily mean compromises in the end-to-end nature of internet technology, creating powerful points of control?
  • Encryption is unquestionably the gold standard for internet security, and encryption works best when individual users alone hold the key to their communications. This technical reality runs counter to the practices of many law enforcement agencies. How do we address the real needs of law enforcement officers, armed with orders approved by judges, when the subject of a criminal investigation may be the only person with access to the information in that order?

Ultimately, what’s most striking and important about the structures of the internet is their durability. Decisions about how the internet will operate endure not just for years but decades. Over that time, they have a dramatic impact on our internet experience and our ability to enjoy fundamental rights like privacy and free expression. That’s why we will continue to focus not just on individual policy battles, but also to improve the architecture, standards and laws that shape our internet experience. We hope you’ll join us in these efforts.