(@amywebb) is an
author and futurist
and the founder of
the Future Today
Institute, a leading
forecasting and strategy firm.
AMY WEBB ; LEADING EDGE
ight now, most demo-
cratic countries see
one internet. Not for
nothing is it called the
World Wide Web, and
since its commercial-
ization, its content has
been generally acces-
sible to all but those living in authoritarian societies. But a
constellation of pending lawsuits and sweeping new inter-
national regulations could rewrite the rules of digital business
in free societies and dismantle the web in its current form,
e;ectively creating many di;erent “splinternets.” Your
customers could be treated di;erently depending on which
country they live in—and even from state to state in the U.S.
This didn’t happen overnight. When the internet shifted
from academia and government to the private sector in the
1990s, we let it propagate freely, instead of treating it like a
regulated utility or financial system. Back then, lawmakers
didn’t think much about how all the data we’d generate on the
internet might be used.
Then, early this century, Google started directing people to
hyper-relevant webpages; later, Facebook began mining user
data to pinpoint ads and paid content to specific accounts.
Such uses of data were, and remain, really good for business.
A few years ago, a fitness startup began using member data to
target new customers and help decide what classes to add.
That company—Peloton, which streams cycling classes to
connected stationary bicycles—generated $170 million in
revenue in 2016. Others, like Fitbit, measure our physical
activity; Lyft and Uber track our locations and direct cars
our way; businesses from big-box retailers to small shops use
customer data to send out mailings, email coupons, and track
inventory—the list goes on.
But machine learning algorithms are now really smart,
and not all the ways data can be used sit well with consumers.
That’s why revelations about Cambridge Analytica, which
gained access to the data of more than 87 million Facebook
users, made such an impact. Political campaigns that used the
company’s data now allege it wasn’t that useful, but it’s hard
to ignore how easy it was to mine, refine, and package—all
without our knowledge.
Meanwhile lawsuits and new regulations are pending worldwide. In Germany, social media sites that don’t remove “
obviously illegal” posts could be fined up to € 50 million per o;ense.
Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Google must scrub search
results of pirated products, such as movies. Europe’s General
Data Protection Regulation, which went into e;ect on May 25,
is a broad set of rules giving European Union citizens more
control over their data. Anyone doing business in the E.U. now
must comply with the GDPR, which includes proving that
users’ personal data has been gathered under transparent
circumstances and gives them the option to limit its use.
By the time you read this, the Supreme Court may have
Why the era of one internet
decided whether online retailers like Wayfair and Overstock
are subject to sales tax in every state. This decision could boost
businesses in no-sales-tax states like New Hampshire and
Montana, which might see customers return for tax savings.
But for those doing business in states like California and New
York, where the sales tax is high, the opposite could be true.
All this could add up to many di;erent splinternets that look
and behave di;erently from one another according to geogra-
phy. This might seem appealing to businesses and regulators:
Compartmentalization means more ways to control supply and
demand, and possibly stifle competitors. But ultimately, splin-
ternets will cause more harm than good. Big tech companies
will find it impossible to comply with every legal permutation.
Existing filter bubbles will expand to fit geographic borders. All
this will continue to unfold slowly. But once it starts, it will be
di;cult to return to the free-wheeling web of today—where,
despite many flaws, every business has a decent shot at success.
Beware the Coming
for all may be ending.