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There is no denying that technology-driven forces are shaping our world immensely. New technologies including 5G Advanced, 6G, IPv6+ and advanced computing technologies will further enable new applications as we move forward, and indeed, the internet is the engine of this digitization.

Today, such advancement has become a critical component of our economies as well as our daily lives. However, the internet is an inherently insecure channel for information exchange with a high risk of intrusion or fraud, including phishing, online viruses, trojans, ransomware or even physical disruption.

Global cybercrime rates have been increasing by the day. Threat intelligence reports have identified the rise of cybercrime entities such as Lockbit 3.0, Hiveleaks, BlackBasta, Lazarus Group, etc., which have managed to create a sinister atmosphere for public and private organizations. Many methods are being tried and tested to fight these threats, including encryption, dual authentication, integrated endpoint security solutions and more, but without much effect.  Many countries have funded research projects on the new-generation Internet, such as GENI, FIND, FIRE and CNGI, in an effort to solve these challenges.

Due to the vulnerabilities associated with the use of the internet, organizations such as the European Commission hope to find a dynamic solution to this debilitating issue. “We envision that the information age will be an era that brings out the best in all of us. We want to enable human potential and creativity at the largest possible scale. To preserve and expand the European way of life, we must shape a value-centric, human-inclusive internet for all,” says Georgios Tselentis, scientific project officer at the European Commission.

As such, The Next Generation Internet (NGI) – a European Commission initiative – aims to shape the development and evolution of the “Internet into an Internet of Humans”—an internet that responds to people’s fundamental needs, including trust, security and inclusion. “The NGI initiative is a unique opportunity for European innovators for future internet researchers and organizations in Europe and also worldwide to be able to refine the internet of the future in a way that it can respond to the needs of citizens and humans. We have to deal with the internet of today; it’s not going to be possible to throw away everything and build from scratch. We need to incrementally understand what are the parts that we have to capitalize on and where we have to disrupt,” says Monique Calisti, executive director and partner of Martel Innovate, coordinator of the HUB4NGI project.

Erosion of Trust and Space

The distinction between the real world and the digital world is blurring with the continued growth in connectivity. With the introduction of technologies such as edge computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), multimedia content and social media, the internet offers unparalleled access to data and online services. Data mining using AI is being utilized to analyze information for various purposes ranging from customer care services to remote healthcare. There is progress in fully autonomous networks for connected objects and services. However, the internet has encountered a “trust issue” concerning personal data security, cybercrimes and the spread of disinformation via online channels. Apart from the security issue, the IP address space in the current standard Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) – approximately 4.3 billion IP address spaces – is rapidly filling up. Internet engineers have been working on the new standard called Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6), which has an internet address allotment of 80,000 trillion.

Tomorrow’s Internet

The NGI initiative aims to build the key technology blocks of a human-centric internet, which gives end-users full control of their data. Through advanced technologies, new decentralized business and social models will ensure secure and trustworthy access for all. The mission of NGI is to “re-imagine and re-engineer the Internet.” It promotes that the information age should “enable human potential, mobility and creativity” in an inclusive way while dealing responsibly with natural resources.

As for its new digital economy, China’s state planners have identified four broad areas to focus on. The first is the development of its digital economy sector to leverage the next wave of technological revolution and opportunities. Secondly, data management must be considered a critical factor in developing the digital economy. Third is the digitizing of services for its citizens, and lastly, is the regulating of a healthy and sustainable digital economy.

Meanwhile, the US National Broadband Plan states that, among other goals, the United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, as it has the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.

With such varying expectations throughout the world, it’s easy to see that the complexity of the internet is growing both virtually and physically. Hence, a valid question comes to mind.

Can the Internet Be Re-engineered?

Early networking research community engaged in the new Internet conversation has talked about two broad approaches – evolutionary and clean slate. The evolutionary approach looks at the existing Internet architecture to solve the major technical challenges. A suitable example of the evolutionary approach is the Internet Engineering Task Force’s (IETF) IPv6. The clean slate approach, as the name suggests, looks at developing a new Internet architecture entirely such as the projects conducted by the National Science Foundation’s FIND and GENI program.  Internet innovators across the globe are finding ways to bolster information trustworthiness, the validity of information processing and exchange, personal data protection and copyright. Among the new technologies, blockchain technology is being considered with great interest by virtue of its recording of transactions and other activities in a distributed ledger format by which every stakeholder can be held accountable.

Moreover, the Web3 revolution, moving beyond the Web2 version of the internet, is promising to decentralize data governance from big industry players such as Meta, Google, Microsoft, etc., who have benefited from surveillance advertising – a business model based on persistent and invasive data collection. Web3 features decentralized blockchain networks and disaggregated data, allowing users to have independent ownership. As such, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies can help reduce costs while increasing trust, traceability and security. They have huge potential for making social and economic online transactions more secure by guarding against attacks and removing the need for middlemen. Along with the threats associated with a hyper-connected world, there is also the concern of internet sovereignty or the “splinternet” concept. The term “splinternet” has come to denote the co-existence of various internet networks based on different standards and technologies, which would result in the fragmentation of the World Wide Web at a conceptual level. Other terms such as “decoupling” and “bifurcation of the internet” refer to the same idea.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a global economy, and its stability is directly proportionate to our existence. Facilitating today’s global trade requires a robust digital infrastructure supported by a thorough understanding of the value of data as well as its collection, storage and analysis. Such understanding will ensure security, business growth and sustainability. Continued improvements in regulatory frameworks by global authorities – with a special focus on the physical development of internet hubs, internet backbone and subsea cables – are a must for the future of the internet.

The new age of the internet will have to include greater democratic accountability, scalability, equitable distribution of power and balanced compliance to the demands of both the market and the people.

Also read: Is there a way out of internet shutdowns?

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