Contention on how the internet should be run isn’t new. Some have identified this as a world of parallel internets, or rifts in the vision of how the internet should operate. But the gulfs in governance and action opening up and the active efforts to influence them indicate the world is coming into a new—and worrying—phase of the internet’s development, one we’ve dubbed the Internet’s Warring States Period.
Ancient China’s Warring States Period gave rise to more than conflict. It was also marked by shifting alliances and trade networks, new forms of currency and writing, and different philosophical and political schools of thought, known popularly as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Necessity mothered an incredible amount of cultural, commercial, and scientific invention. Confucianism and Taoism, philosophical systems now endemic to China, emerged, and major tracts like the Analects, the I Ching, and the Art of War were scribed or formalized.
Around the world, we are beginning to see another hundred schools of thought emerge around data rights, privacy, free speech, net neutrality, content credibility, and even financial transfer systems and protocols. The field of contention straddles the spectrums of data privacy and rights versus widespread surveillance; of full net neutrality versus tiered networks and systems like “zero rating”; and of “radical free speech” versus state censorship versus content moderation practices grounded in international human rights norms. Through laws, infrastructure development, corporate investments, malware attacks, and digital propaganda, states and multinationals assert their power while shaping internets based on their beliefs and values. These different schools will come to define our varying experiences of online life for years to come and, as artificial intelligence and the internet of things begin to embed themselves in daily routines, to critically affect our everyday lives as well. As the frontiers of states online thicken, the border between the offline and online is thinning.