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auDA Scenarios 2044: Mapping the Future of Internet Governance and Security

Matt Finch, Sophie Mitchell, Isabel Froning, Nick Arndt, Dorottya Zsiboracs, and Aaron Jerome.

What is the future of our networked world? How might the internet evolve in times to come? What assumptions are we making about today’s digital environment which might need to be challenged, in order for us to formulate wise decisions and policies?

Australia’s domain name self-regulatory body, the .au Domain Administration (auDA),is endorsed by the Australian government to administer the .au domain in the public interest and is tasked with ensuring it is a secure, accessible, and trusted critical asset for internet users. In addition to its domestic duties, auDA also advocates for the .au and actively participates in internet governance processes on the global stage.

In a sector that is little more than three decades old, defined by innovation, disruption, and dynamism, decisionmakers cannot assume that the status quo will continue indefinitely. 

Cognisant of this, auDA convened a nine-month process with a wide range of local and international stakeholders to manufacture contrasting, plausible, and challenging future scenarios which could inform strategic conversation in these uncertain times.

Drawing on the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, auDA’s team mapped the current internet governance ecosystem, plus surrounding uncertainties with the potential to redraw that map in times to come. auDA’s three scenarios, which can be found online here, explore the strategic environment for present-day internet governance by playing out a number of these contextual uncertainties on a twenty-year timeline to 2044. They are not predictions or expressions of desired future states, but visions deliberately manufactured to challenge current assumptions, providing unique vantage points on the concerns of our present day. 

The Scenarios

In the first scenario, STATE OF ALERT, national security is the priority in a world of global tensions. Rising geopolitical competition, combined with the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, create an atmosphere of fear and risk aversion within which national and personal security become more important than liberty to citizens around the world.

In 2044, the internet, a critical national security asset, is divided by geopolitical blocs. Protocols are designed to maximise security within each bloc, with regional “drawbridges” to allow connections between them only when necessary. People are expected to be “citizen-soldiers”, doing their patriotic duty in the fight against climate catastrophe as well as keeping watch against foreign adversaries. Information is seen as the property of the state – and it is a public duty to produce it. 

In the next scenario, ECOLOGICAL CIVILISATION, collective resilience is the priority in a world where environmental catastrophe can no longer be ignored. Climate events previously expected to occur “once a century” have become the widespread norm, and worldwide crises have led to a growing recognition that humanity must pull together to respond to this systemic, existential threat.

By 2044, international governance has evolved to meet the climate crisis, supported by a global network of community eco co-operatives offering mutual aid. Crimes against the environment come under the purview of the International Criminal Court, and “blue helmet” peacekeepers are deployed to pacify resource conflicts and enforce international environmental agreements – as well as addressing the growing problem of permanently displaced climate refugees. The internet is federalised, serving as the basis for global climate debate and solutioneering. Protocols and infrastructure are designed for resilience, interoperability, and open scrutiny. Privacy is at an end, and identity is totally transparent to all, under a global system of climate auditing.

The final scenario, THE PRICE IS RIGHT,  is one where profit is the priority, as corporations transcend the nation-state. Over the 2020s, citizens, already disillusioned with the effectiveness of their governments, lost trust in the state’s ability to protect them or provide basic services in an era of ceaseless cyber attacks and proliferating disinformation. Meanwhile, a series of corporate innovations in clean energy, personalised medicine, and quantum cryptography have led to increasing faith in “celebrity tycoons” and corporate players as saviours of the human race. Former public services, including justice, health, and defence, are now offered by the private sector on a subscription basis.

By 2044, information of every kind is a tradable commodity; even privacy is a privilege which is brokered on commercial data exchanges. Identity is multiple, provisional, and tied to individual subscription-based services, with consumers holding different identities across different platforms. The internet is global and vital to commerce, research and development; its protocols are designed to maximise opportunities for innovation and profit.

These three scenarios are intended to provoke thought, not only for those who work in with domain names, but for all sectors that use the internet as underlying critical infrastructure. They are designed to enrich the global conversation about the internet’s shared future.

In this article, three members of the Emerging Threats group at Oxford’s Centre for the Changing Character of War contribute to that strategic conversation by reflecting on the security and threat implications of each scenario.

Isabel Froning’s Response to the Scenarios

Each of the scenarios builds on patterns that we can already observe today in 2024, yet they reflect three mutually distinct realities for the year 2044, ranging from the nationalization of the internet to governments ceding control either to eco-focused communities or profit-maximising private corporations. The fundamental difference between these scenarios is which actor(s) will be in charge of the internet as this will have discernible security implications.

On the one hand, the incremental erosion of the nation-state in favour of private companies would leave citizens exposed to new dependencies. The hyper-privatisation of public services including in the digital space could result in vulnerable people becoming unable to afford meeting their basic needs. This exacerbation of inequalities could quickly become a breeding ground for dissatisfaction and potential revolutions, increasing insecurity not just between societies but also within societies. Conversely, the expansion of government control in the digital space would also increase the potential for malign actors to exploit these structures for their own benefit and at the expense of society. Regardless of who becomes ‘in charge’, these threats highlight the need for accountability.

The existence of distinct, yet plausible scenarios shows that our future path of internet governance is anything but predetermined. Instead, we are at a crossroads, where our decisions today on how to structure the governance of the internet will determine the trajectory of society or rather societies. These decisions are made by the actors currently in charge and are contingent upon their preferences. Given the differences between democracies and autocracies, or the cultural differences in the role of privacy versus. security, we also need to consider the implications of multiple scenarios taking place simultaneously in different corners of the world. We can already observe this today by contrasting current patterns, for example, on the value of privacy in China vs. Western countries. A further divergence in Internet governance could intensify mistrust and trigger additional conflict between societies. 

Nick Arndt’s Response to the Scenarios

From an expansion of the security and surveillance state to a world where the the state is eclipsed in importance by either mutual-aid communities in the face of climate catastrophe, or by profit-driven corporate actors that erode both individual and state rights, each of the auDA scenarios implies a vast shift in the threat environment that governments will be faced with. At their core, they all envision a continued increase of the importance of the internet and of information in governing a digitised world. 

Most notably, though, THE PRICE IS RIGHT reflects a challenge to national security that is already emerging today: the increasing reliance of modern militaries on civilian technology as private sector innovation outpaces public sector research. Of course, SpaceX’s involvement in the War in Ukraine with the Starlink internet satellite constellation comes to mind. Early on during the war, Starlink provided Ukraine forces crucially needed internet access, which is indispensable on the battlefield of the 21st century. This involvement became controversial, though, when CEO Elon Musk refused an Ukrainian emergency request to activate Starlink in Sevastopol to support Ukrainian naval drones that were en-route to attack vessels of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Musk saw himself as “explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” had the attack proceeded as planned. This reflects the increasingly complicated relationship between the public and private defence sectors, as not militaries rely on private actors not only for goods and auxiliary services but also for key roles on an operational level. 

As the internet is becoming an increasingly indispensable resource on the modern battlefield, militaries and governments need to find solutions to the provision of internet connection and cyber ressources that embraces the vast potential of the private sector, without handing parts of the chain of command into private hands. While the price may be right, the national security cost of critical technology and infrastructure in the wrong hands could be more than we can afford.

Dorottya Zsiboracs’ Response to the Scenarios

These scenarios reflect a blend of current realities and potential consequences stemming from the social, political, and technological upheavals of our time. They caution against overreliance on techno-solutionism and the belief that AI alone can solve intricate, socially embedded issues. Emphasising the urgent need for human leadership and ownership, the priority lies in establishing resilient, adaptable, and universally applicable principles that can navigate the rapidly evolving technological landscape while upholding core human values.

There’s a sobering reality where the lack of human oversight in critical decision-making, such as the recent example of Israel’s AI-enabled military targeting in Gaza, underscores the ethical dilemmas arising from technology outpacing moral guidance. Additionally, the competition for ideological leadership, along with the pursuit of critical resources in nature and space, further exacerbates global tensions.

The scenarios highlight a growing contest over internet governance, with differing models such as the Chinese ‘New IP’ threatening to fragment the internet, alongside global discussions like the UN WSIS+20 review and the renewal of IGF’s mandate. Moreover, the trend towards nationalisation of manufacturing and domain registries could decrease global interdependence and heighten the risk of conflict by creating self-sufficient nations. Numerous internet-related issues, including DNS abuse, child sexual abuse materials, disinformation, cybercrime, are currently key priorities for IGF.

Another significant concern is the expansion of technology as a tool of control, exemplified by systems like India’s biometric e-ID Aadhaar or China’s social credit system.

The idea of techno-solutionism emerges as a double-edged sword. While AI is hailed as a solution for various challenges, its profit-driven application by private organisations risks widening socio-economic divides and diminishing trust in government to address societal needs effectively. The decisions made today will determine whether technology serves as a force for collective resilience or exacerbates divisions within our global community.

Aaron Jerome’s Conclusion and Commentary

Just as the printing press did centuries ago, the internet–a new technology by historical standards–is reshaping the distribution of power within and across societies. Will the internet achieve its creators’ dream of contributing to a more decentralised, democratic, and liberating world? Or will the development of tech produce a “New Dark Age” where the workings and control over increasingly arcane technologies are obscured from citizens by tech firms or governments? 

For professionals focussed on emerging threats, security, and the changing character of war, scenario planning is vital for expanding political imagination.  In Shakespeare’s words, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” War in Europe, internet-enabled terrorist networks, and world-stopping pandemics are stark reminders of the importance of preparing for the unlikely or the unforeseen. 

What would it imply if the above scenarios were ahead of us? In STATE OF ALERT, a grimly deglobalized world entails a future of resurgent nationalism to defend against geopolitical rivals, strong alliances to capitalise on the network effects of internet connectivity, and assertion of state sovereignty into the amorphous world of information. 

ECOLOGICAL CIVILIZATION conversely implies a connected world where state prerogatives take a backseat. Humanity works collectively to face the challenges of climate collapse, feeble global governance, and runaway wealth inequality.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT similarly portrays a future of fading state power, where the notion of public goods and collective benefit is subsumed to capital accumulation. Eroding faith in domestic and international governmental capability to solve challenges set the stage for a techno-capitalist world order. 

Each of the above scenarios imply the need for serious reform to address today’s polycrisis. Without an imminent shift towards renewable energy and away from the current oligopolistic technology landscape, the socially divisive effects of today’s internet are likely to accelerate domestic and geopolitical divisions.

Matt Finch is a consultant to the auDA project and an Associate Fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Sophie Mitchell is the Chief Communications Officer and internal scenarios lead at auDA. Isabel Schulze Froning is the Operations Officer of the Emerging Threats Group and an MPhil Politics student. Nick Arndt is the former Publications Lead of the Emerging Threats Group and an MPhil IR student at New College, Oxford. Dorottya Zsiboracs is a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute and an analyst at the Oxford Information Labs. Aaron Jerome is the Emerging Threats Group’s Group Lead and a second-year student in the MPhil in IR.

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