The future of the Internet

Interview with Fadi Chehadè

“The Internet is broken”, said Twitter founder Evan Williams a few weeks ago. The open web has turned out to be less secure than we thought, cyber warfare has become reality and we can no longer assume that in the future the internet will continue as we know it.


We talk with Fadi Chehadé, teacher at Harvard, senior advisor to the World Economic Forum and former CEO of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. As head of ICANN he made history by helping the organization become independent from the US Trade Department, handing control to an international multi-stakeholder community. Today he teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and is senior adviser on the digital economy to the World Economic Forum.


Could the cyber war that has broken out between the USA and Russia signal the end of the internet as we know it? Is an open web less secure?

The fathers of the internet, Vint Cerf, Bob Khan and Steve Crocker, told me that when they created the internet there were two possible models, one that was more secure and another that was more open. They chose the open version based on the requests that they received from the US Department of Defense and they did so as it would produce a more resilient network that would be less likely to crash. As has been noted, the web that we know represents just one fifth of the internet; there is also the ‘dark web’, the clandestine network that was also created to be open. Today we face a dilemma because the internet was not created for cyber war: we are reconsidering the way in which the web must function. It is a very delicate time.


When you say that you are “reconsidering the web” what do you mean? Who is doing this and from where? Does ICANN have a role in this?

No, ICANN is not involved in this. Now ICANN is independent and focused on its own role, on domain names, on the new model of multi-stakeholder governance.

The internet can be perceived on three levels The first is that of the networks and infrastructure and it is pretty much governed by standards and rules. The second level is that of logic, that of ICANN, which enables 80 thousand networks that make up the internet to be perceived as one single network. The third level is that of human rights, artificial intelligence and security standards: here there is no order and there is no ICANN. Today many heads of state and top managers of leading companies are considering what to do, also because states and countries are losing power. Today at every international meeting the talk is of cyber warfare. It is a priority for everyone. Everyone is trying to upgrade their own digital “military” power and there are big problems because the web is not secure. I believe that this summer, before the UN General Assembly in September, something will happen. We cannot go on like this, it’s too dangerous. One month ago Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote something very important on his blog, that we need rules. It is the first time that a big company has asked for rules, just one year ago a request of this type would have been unimaginable.


And does China recognize this need too?

Yes, of course. Until a few years ago China was concerned only with China. Nowadays China is involved with the world and the Chinese have understood that in order to be a global power, they need the internet. Of course, Beijing has very clear borders for the web: few other countries could do the same.


However, if every state closed down the borders of the web, it would no longer be the internet as we know it.

Yes, you are right, this is a genuine risk. The internet was designed to aid communication from person to person, not from country to country.


Nowadays the idea of “state hackers” is mentioned openly…

There’s a very interesting study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, backed up by two years of work. Governments of countries that possess nuclear arms were asked if they would sign a non-proliferation treaty concerning cyber-weapons. All of them answered no. This is understandable, it is too soon. Nobody wants to take the risk. But the biggest problem is that in the nuclear world the weapons are in the hands of states; no one takes responsibility for cyber-attacks, officially cyber war is waged by someone else. We do not have a common framework. The UN was established as a system last century, during the Second World War. Today we need a new system and I hope that we will not have to wait for a big crisis before we actually create it.


What will be the role of insurance companies in the digital future?

Insurance companies too will have a very important role to play in the digital space, not only in providing insurance against IT piracy but also in creating incentives for the industry to create safer digital devices and solutions. The insurance sector played a similar and decisive role when electricity began to be used in industry (see, for example, the Underwriters Laboratory in the US). I hope that today progress can be made to perform a similar role as our infrastructure and global assets become increasingly digital. Already today more than 80% of assets on the S&P Index are intangible.


The owners of Google and Facebook have claimed to be surprised how the two platforms behaved during the US election campaign. Is it not surprising that they know so little about their own algorithms?

It’s true. It was a surprise also for us. For years the giants of the internet thought that they were just platforms, they were concerned with being open and functioning well. I understand this. If I begin to filter Facebook through the cultures of various countries then it is no longer Facebook. Today, however, it seems that they are more willing to take some responsibility and they are actually asking for help, asking for rules, they admit that they are not self-sufficient. For this reason Brad Smith’s blog got many people talking also here in California. We need a multi-stakeholder framework, a new system of cooperation between companies, states and citizens. There is much talking of this, at the World Economic Forum, at Oxford, art Harvard: we haven’t come up with the solution yet but we are working on it.


As president of ICANN you strongly lobbied for multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet and you achieved a historic outcome. Is there a fear that the Trump presidency could bring ICANN back under US control?

No, legally and practically speaking, that would be almost impossible. I have met the directors of the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Informal Administration), the US government agency that supervises issues concerning networks and communications, and they assured me that there will be no turning back.