Commentary / World | API Geo-economic Briefing

Internet holds the key to the post-coronavirus era

by Jun Murai

Special to The Japan Times

API Geo-economic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on four areas: technology and innovation; global supply chains; international rule-making and climate change.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that the skillful and sensible use of the internet will allow us to navigate through this crisis with the minimum possible damage.

Unmanned, remote and contactless technologies will inevitably be embedded into our economic system in the so-called With Corona era, in which people live with the virus, accepting the risk of infection as part of everyday life. When such a society takes root, the fourth industrial revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things, drones, autonomous driving and fifth-generation (or 5G) high-speed wireless networks, will only advance at a faster speed.

At this point in time, there is a huge gap between countries and regions that are leading in digital transformation and those that lag behind, in terms of finding, tracing and isolating coronavirus patients and people who have had close contact with them, keeping others healthy and keeping society moving. Digitally advanced countries and regions have boldly introduced telemedicine, online education and teleworking. The ability of all countries to put technological innovations into practice will be crucial to the success of reconstructing virus-hit economies.

Yet COVID-19 is posing a historically significant challenge to what I call the “Internet Civilization,” as we approach a situation in which the internet becomes an essential part of our lives. Given the evolution of the internet in the past 30 to 40 years, where does it fit and what is its significance today?

The internet is not the product of the U.S. military, nor the result of a single nation’s industrial policy and nor was it spawned as a result of a democratic process.

The anarchy of the internet has a negative side, however. The virus crisis has revealed its unpleasant face: disinformation campaigns by China and Russia; cyberattacks from hackers in China on 38 U.S. medical startups researching vaccines; and government officials from the U.S. and China trading barbs on Twitter. The more malicious instances are the relentless WannaCry ransomware attacks on medical institutions that are on the brink of collapse.

The internet was developed in the academic environment of the 1980s and evolved into the foundation of the economy in the ’90s. It has paved the way for the “only civilization on the earth” in which people can express their knowledge and creativity freely, without borders.

In 2000, the number of internet users was only 6 percent of the world’s population. The figure leapt to 58.7 percent at the end of 2019. Nearly half of the current users — 2.2 billion — are in Asia, accounting for around half the region’s population. This means that most of the potential new online participants of the future exist in Asia (excluding Japan and South Korea, which are now essentially saturated).

New geoeconomic structure

This fact suggests that the region can play a role in solving problems through geographical, political and economic approaches. A new society based on digital technology and the internet, or the Internet Civilization, presents a new structure in geoeconomics, which is defined by the use of the economy for geopolitical purposes.

There are three points to note on how the transition to the post-coronavirus era and the new normal will lead the future of the internet.

First, as history shows, innovation holds the key to emerging from a pandemic or massive natural disaster. The internet minimizes the cost of innovation, amasses great knowledge and allows people to design and promote new services on a large scale.

Secondly, humans must consider how to manage and develop the internet with a focus on sustainability. The internet, like climate change and the virus itself, poses a global challenge to humanity. We have to learn to live with them all, recognizing that the greatest value lies in the sustainability of the Earth, the environment and humanity.

Lastly, it is necessary for us to have the clear recognition of roles in security governance in the “global space,” which takes into consideration humans and the Earth as a whole.

A government-backed attack on another country via the internet falls within the domain of cyberdefense and should be dealt with in the context of the “international space.” Criminal activity using the internet is cybercrime, and each country should handle the matter in the context of its “domestic space,” while recognizing that international cooperation is also important.

‘The global space’

To enhance cybersecurity, however, we need a deep understanding of the global space.

No country has a comprehensive policy structure that takes the three spaces — international, domestic and global — into account.

A common aspect shared by the virus, climate change and the internet is that only a global solution can clear a global challenge, and partnership among politicians, scientists and engineers is essential.

A forum called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) promotes the technological standards of the internet. IETF brings together communities which have created organizations working on related plans and policies. The most cited phrase among these communities is “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code,” by David Clark, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This creed maintains a guiding power. It is rooted in the strong idea of a sustainable ecosystem where the internet’s basic principle — sharing and exchange of digital data globally without restrictions — can be maintained and developed in a healthy manner.

The internet, in other words, is nothing less than social empowerment. It is not the digital “Leninism” of China, which uses digital technologies for governance, nor the “platforms” of Silicon Valley. Whether or not there is an alternative has been questioned during the coronavirus crisis.

COVID-19 has delivered an “anthropological shock,” as described by French President Emmanuel Macron in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

The internet allows humanity to perceive the crisis, participate in crisis response in real time and learn lessons together.

In today’s globalized world, COVID-19 has spread so quickly that we could call it the globalization of a virus. Each country’s approach to the crisis is characterized by the globalization facilitated by the internet. Possibilities abound through collaboration and sharing the world’s wisdom.

Abuse versus ethical use of the internet

There is no doubt that newly devised technologies and innovations will help improve human health and the economy and promote world peace. To realize this vision, we must address a wide range of risks that accompany technologies — ethical, cultural, social, national security and political — by managing them under the framework of international cooperation.

Last year marked 50 years since the two research projects that led to the advent of the internet began, and 30 years since the invention of the first web browser and the World Wide Web.

The future debate will likely center on what challenges the internet will face 30 years or 50 years from now.

The common answer I have heard from sociologists around the world has been “ethics.”

The internet has been assessed with the emphasis on its economic impact but it is time for us to create a new society.

Jun Murai is dean of the Asia Pacific Initiative’s Institute of Geoeconomic Studies and a senior fellow at API. He is also a distinguished professor at Keio University and a co-director of Keio University’s Cyber Civilization Research Center.

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