The design and policing of online spaces bears directly on many of the most important problems faced by democracies today. Many proposed solutions, however, barely skim the surface of the Internet as a technology. Unseen beneath growing public debates around privacy, misinformation and online harms lie layer upon layer of infrastructure and code, sending the messages which make up the visible parts of the Internet. These layers are governed by technical protocols, changes that affect the complex human societies which exist online. Those aiming to build a better web cannot afford to ignore the foundations upon which it is built.
In this paper, as part of the Good Web Project, we examine two examples of protocols which may represent the next evolution of the Internet: New IP, developed by China’s Huawei, and DNS over HTTPS (or ‘DoH’), developed and championed, among others, by the Mozilla Foundation and Cloudflare. For each, we discuss the significant effects which these changes could have on the human and social layers of the Internet.
The relationships between governments, civil society, the groups who govern and develop protocols, and the technology companies who often employ their members are critical in the battle to build a better web. Where motives can be aligned, alignment should be found. Where they cannot, those without the power to implement protocols must be empowered to interpret and challenge the decisions of those who can. To do this, it is crucial that policymakers, citizen groups and technologists are able to find common ground.