The future of the Internet is at risk

The future of the Internet is at risk

The unprecedented growth of the Internet provides a serious risk to individuals, businesses, and governments, alike. In order to secure the future of the Internet, the world need to start thinking differently. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) will lead to an unprecedented level of private and global hyper-connectivity. Against this backdrop, the mere thought of a dysfunctional internet seems aberrant. But presently, it is far from clear whether policy-makers, internet operators and private tech firms will be able to manage the most crucial challenges to the internet’s future existence properly and on time.

Generally speaking, cyber risk is highly dynamic and volatile, making it extremely difficult to manage. More importantly, it can also turn into a tail risk, which defines its potentially far-reaching public impact on data, public and private infrastructure, or reputation. With the advent of the Internet of Things, both the private and public sphere’s vulnerability has dramatically increased, and will continue to do so.

In this context, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has identified the future of the internet as one out of the ten most significant global challenges the world will be facing for the next decade to come.

This has also prompted the highly renowned international organization to father a so-called “future of the internet initiative” to specifically address internet-related risks and to induce better cooperation among various actors, such as private tech-firms, NGOs, political decision-makers, and international regimes, and those that are in charge of the technical infrastructure of the internet, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), the root servers’ operators, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Digitalization and the unprecedented growth of the internet

One key factor driving the rapid growth of the internet and digitalisation and innovation processes at large can be traced to the ever-expanding tech hub epicentres around the globe. Be it in London, Palo Alto, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Santiago de Chile, Bangalore, Singapore, Nairobi or Mexico City, new start-up scenes emerge quickly, changing the lives of millions of people by means of groundbreaking new ideas, technologies, and digital services.

This trend lies at the very heart of the current quick pace of the technologization of nearly every part of our daily life, including smart cars, smart housing or wearables.

Parallel to this, the number of users of modern technologies and online devices is hitting new global records. However, its acceleration has slowed down over the past three years. The same accounts for smartphone subscription growth, the consumer internet, and mobile data traffic. The following four charts, courtesy of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, will exemplify these key trends in more detail.


Despite the slowing down, more than 400 million people purchased a smartphone in 2014. China alone is going to spend around $180 billion to improve countrywide internet access and its respective speed by the end of 2017. Over the next three decades, an estimated 5 billion people in the global south will go online for the first time. In the same breath, data storage centers skyrocket in numbers and capacity on every continent.

In this respect, the Internet of Things, which refers to the connection of physical devices to the internet, will add another new dimension to the internet realm, creating staggering opportunities and severe cyber risks alike. It is expected that IoT will at least double the size of the smartphone, PC, tablet, smart car, and wearables market combined by 2019, amounting to a total value added to the global economy of up to $1.7 trillion.

Why the hazard of data overload is real

Exponential data growth has become a major concern. To date, the world produces 1 exabyte (1 billion gigabytes) of data per day. The creation of big data itself is one key challenge for internet technology.

However, the largest threat originates in the fact that new big data is created faster and faster while more and more people around the globe have access to the internet, using internet-driven apps, cloud computing platforms, location formation services, consumer applications, and social media portals.

In particular, cloud computing currently drives data explosion, since it enables the accelerated building, storage, aggregating, and processing of extremely large quantities of data. As most of the big data creation is primarily consumer-driven, and as surging numbers of technologies are combined, the issue of data explosion might become a real-case scenario. In light of this, a recent study expects the internet to collapse until 2023, due the interconnected mega-trends of rapid global internet user and data growth.

Another key concern of the study is simply associated with the energy consumption that will massively increase parallel to this development. This will even become more of an issue with regard to the so-called deep or dark web, which is hidden and whose exact size cannot be determined. However, its size and data growth is estimated to massively outweigh the visible web used by the general public.

Internet espionage and cyberwarfare as threats to international security

In today’s world, the internet has become a decisive tool for inter-, intra- and non-state warfare. The risk of large-scale cyber attacks continues to be considered above average on both dimensions of impact and likelihood.

For instance, Kaspersky Lab states that different non-state actors, including Mafia groups, have entered the cyberwarfare battleground to commit far-reaching attacks on infrastructure, physical things, and critical data. The same goes for terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State. Accordingly, cyber attacks have been classified as potential high-impact risks that can affect international security and political stability at the local, national, regional and global level.

Due to these unprecedented security risks, infrastructure investment into the maintenance of the internet are expected to shift from the public to more critical spheres that form part of the military-security complex or governmental sectors, for instance.

New security imperatives also emerge from online encryption & security protocols used by open source web servers, such as OpenSSL, which make up more than 2/3 of all the world’s websites. Flaws in it have already been exploited by hackers and terrorists to steal sensitive data or install malware.

Lastly, increasing hyperconnectivity and more security-related information being stored in the cloud constitute risk dimensions that the current internet infrastructure was not designed to cope with. Therefore, present legislation is ill-fitted to keep pace with the highly volatile evolution of the internet structure that occurs outside of legal frameworks. Consequently, a potential high-impact state-sponsored, state-affiliated, criminal or terrorist cyber attack could spark a system breakdown and / or loss of trust in the internet as a whole.

The need to think differently

  1. Mitigating risk: Data explosion
  • The set of solutions to reduce the risk of data overload is limited. For instance, faster cables and fiber optics will consume too much electricity in the long run. In addition, thinner cables to transport more information are presently not workable from a scientific point of view. Employing more cables and fiber optics could work; however, this will incur higher costs, which will have to be paid by consumers.
  • A second approach focuses on simply building larger server farms to store more data. Google, amongst other tech firms, pursues this strategy. In turn, server farms create new front lines regarding energy and water consumption.
  • Another solution is associated with new ways of data shortening and compression. As costs might rise with regard to storing more data within a limited capacity, online black markets might emerge.
  • Lastly, some firms have begun to providing more offline solutions. For instance, Google is currently building an offline version of Google Maps. Besides, Chinese search giant, Baidu, has massively scaled up its investment into offline services.
  1. Mitigating risk: Cyber attacks
  • In order to fight cyber attacks, private businesses and governmental bodies, in particular, have improved their anticipatory capabilities and preventive measures based on real-time intelligence and threat assessment data. Companies also respond by making use of embedded security when designing and producing products.
  • Global internet governance undergoes change for currently being too Western-centric, which doesn’t account of the power shift in international politics. However, it is expected that any multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance could cause far-reaching interstate tensions and ultimately result in a fragmentation of the internet based on localized data storage and halting cross-border data flow. Different perceptions of democratic values and questions regarding how online content should be disseminated already impinge negatively on these negotiations.
  • Another issue that needs to be tackled by an international approach to internet governance is down to the rapid centralization of the internet, which has led to the emergence of monolithic platforms, such as those owned by the world’s most popular search engines and social networks.
Categories: International, Security

About Author

Christian Hellwig

Christian works as a strategic communications, policy analysis and public affairs expert and has been a longstanding contributor with Global Risk Insights on a wide range of issues since early 2015. Most recently, he has worked for CNC Communications & Network Consulting and Schneider Minar Jenewein Consulting, two companies with a strong European footprint in the fields of strategic communications, reputation, crisis & (cyber) risk management, public affairs and government relations. Christian holds a MSc in International Relations from London School of Economics & Political Science and a first class honours BA from a leading German university in Governance & Public Policy.