What happens to the internet when the coronavirus pandemic is over?

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The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the daily lives of billions of people — including elites in nearly every country — has set the stage for many profound changes that will take place when the current pandemic is over. High on the list of things that will look different to almost everyone is the internet. 

Since the 1990s when the internet emerged from the U.S. government’s NSFNET/ARPANET into a commercial medium, the internet has been widely viewed and treated by U.S. and foreign policymakers as if it were a routine information service… or as just a big collection of private data networks. Compared with pre-existing mass media (“old media”) such as postal mail, telephone, broadcast television, cable TV, broadcast radio and print-based publishing, the internet (“new media”) was treated as an interesting but tertiary medium only of interest to a segment of the general public. This policy treatment of the internet as a comparatively exotic medium (compared with telephone, TV, etc.) dovetailed perfectly with new media’s origins in the unregulated computer industry.

For the past 25 years, the result has been a vast difference between the highly regulatory approach taken by governments everywhere to old media vs the nearly unregulated approach taken to new media. This hands-off approach to the internet led directly to a flowering of innovation, experimentation, investment and rapid growth. Innovation in old media required extensive legal reviews, regulatory permission and exhaustive preparations for predictable lawsuits and complaints. Compare that old approach to innovation with the internet engineers’ motto “rough consensus and running code” or Facebook’s pre-2014 motto “Move Fast and Break Things.” Permissionless innovation gave us enormously important new services and products. Not surprisingly, investment and creative talent massively flowed into new media — which gave us the internet world that the coronavirus pandemic visited in early 2020: Elites in every country are fully wired, and most common folk in most countries have been wired as well.

Because of governments’ policies to slow down the pandemic by closing offices, stores, churches, schools, etc., for billions of people, the internet and the services that run on it have now become their lifeline. Just a few examples of things almost entirely dependent during the pandemic on the internet include: office jobs, education, entertainment, family contacts, health care, social events, spectator sports, religious services, investment, retirement, and on and on. 

Consider for a moment if you were to ask these internet-dependent people in many countries “if only one medium could survive, should it be postal mail, telephone, broadcast television, printed publications, cable TV, radio… or the internet?” For at least a decade, the answer among most teenagers would probably have been “the internet.” Today, I’m confident that a majority of adults in the U.S. and most other countries would say “the internet” as well. This demonstrates a profound change of attitudes toward the internet compared with other media.

So, when people almost everywhere emerge from their home offices, home schools and home churches, they will have gone through a deeply personal, common experience.

The internet will look different to them than it did before the pandemic.

For billions of people in dozens of countries, the internet will no longer be an exotic medium of interest to some people. It was their lifeline for weeks or months. Losing it to adversaries, terrorists, business interests, vandals, politicians, elites or anyone else will no longer be imaginable.

How this translates to policies and programs is hard to predict, as is the timing and particulars for any single nation. But we already have the outlines, from before the pandemic, of a few internet policy areas in which governments have become increasingly active. The internet’s central role during the pandemic will accelerate these and start even more:

  • Military and intelligence leaders from most large countries have gradually increased their attention to the internet as a principal domain for international conflict, culminating with the Pentagon’s “Defending Forward” internet doctrine. Just as governments everywhere protect national airspace and territorial seas, expect them to do ever more to define and protect their own, individual national cyberspace.
  • The regulation of content on the internet has been raised with increased frequency as the medium has grown, starting with intellectual property issues, child predation, human trafficking, hate speech, political campaign interference and so on. Just as governments everywhere regulate content in broadcasting and print publishing, pressure will grow after the pandemic to do so on the now-far-more-important medium.
  • The “digital divide” has for decades been a popular topic among a narrow segment of the media, civil society, politicians and scholars. But since the internet itself — unlike telephone or television or postal mail — was widely viewed as an optional tool, of value and interest only to some, but not all, the issue has never gained broad traction. As huge majorities in many countries come to accept that their jobs, banking, shopping, education, religion, families, healthcare and more were dependent on the internet, their views about whether internet access is optional will change. If one’s survival is dependent on one’s access to the internet, then access cannot logically be viewed as optional. The principle that people must have access to the internet to minimally participate in society applies as much among nations as it does within nations.
  • Finally, the coronavirus has highlighted like nothing before the unique role that American institutions play in controlling the internet and the unique powers that the president has over those institutions. Few foreign leaders have missed the point that the American president has declared several states of emergencies during the pandemic and that these declarations give the president vast unilateral authorities over businesses and organizations located in the United States. FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel noted in a January speech, for example, that under 47 USC Section 606, following a presidential determination, the president has the authority to take control over significant aspects of the internet. The more widely-publicized Defense Production Act, according to a recent analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, gives the president the unilateral authority to “…allocate materials, services and facilities for national defense purposes…”

If few foreign leaders — friends, adversaries or in-between — missed the point that the American president has vast emergency authority over businesses and organizations located in the United States, none have missed the point that nearly all of the guts of the internet lie within in a narrow, 40,000-square-mile strip of land from Seattle to San Diego. These include the world’s most important social networks, shopping channels, chip makers, router manufacturers as well as the authorities that manage everything from internet domain names, to internet IP addresses to internet standards and internet language rules.

The recent global recognition of the sweeping emergency authority of the American president over the guts of the internet will accelerate the trends towards internet fragmentation that have been at play in Russia, China, Iran and elsewhere for over a decade. And it may well lead to what former-Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted in late 2018 would be “a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.” In that respect, the most lasting impact of the pandemic on the internet may be the simple recognition that the American president has enormous emergency authority that could someday be used to control the internet.   

Regardless of the outcome in any of these areas, the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has ended the perception that the Internet is an exotic medium of interest to only some people. Its role as the premier medium of the early twenty first century has now been established.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Digital technology Internet Internet Governance Forum new media Technology
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