When thinking about the internet in an ideal world, I often think of an independent platform that provides a mechanism for free expression, commerce, and the exchange of ideas. Yet, as more and more of the global population comes online, the internet has become a reflection of global dynamics and geopolitical undercurrents. Today, this reality is manifesting itself around the impending roll out of 5G.

Why? Over the last few years, three models of internet governance have come to dominate how users interact with the Internet:

  1. The U.S. model, which puts the market at its center, by promoting an open, interoperable, and secure internet.

  2. The European model, which puts the individual user at its center, by promoting social good, such as combatting inequality and protecting individual privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) reflects these values.

  3. The Chinese model, which puts the state at its center and sees internet governance as an extension of government control.

The concern for the security community is that with the deployment of 5G the balance between these three governance models could tip the scale to favor one model over others. This is because at its foundation, 5G is different than all previous versions of wireless technology.

Connect.jpgGlobal connectivity. Picture shared by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay.com.

What is 5G?

5G is fifth-generation wireless technology (i.e., what comes after 4G). Those who have experienced several versions of wireless technology can attest that with each new generation there are significant improvements, including reduced lag time. 5G will be another update to wireless technology, yet this upgrade is expected to be significantly different from all previous upgrades. How?

  • 5G is 100 times faster than 4G.
  • 5G operates wirelessly, and over time could reduce the need for fiber-optic cables in cities.
  • 5G will enable the Internet of Things (IOT) and smart cities, by establishing the technological backbone for all connected devices to communicate with each other in near real-time.

Put simply, 5G is set to change our way of life. It will likely change the way we work, communicate, make decisions, commute, and participate in the economy. Some even believe that its deployment will be as transformational as the rollout of the electric grid.

What Does This Mean for the Digital Development Community?

5G has enormous potential to unlock economic opportunity and access to digital services for underserved or unserved populations. Therefore, it has the potential to enable the digital development community to deliver on our goal of bridging the digital divide. At the same time, it poses a serious challenge.

Today, the 5G market is dominated by Chinese companies like Huawei, which are often seen as exporting the internet governance model dominant in China—that is to say, an internet where state priorities are put at the center, rather than the values of open exchange and user centrality. In the next few years, developing country governments will make decisions about which private companies to work with to build the backbone of their 5G networks.

Given the potential this technology will unlock, there will likely be a rush to procure the technology as quickly and as cheaply as possible. But as demonstrated earlier, these technologies are not neutral. They reflect the values of the society that developed them, which may or may not align with the values we are trying to promote.

The advent of 5G will likely resurrect debates within the development community about how closely we should be tied to the security apparatus, and some may conclude that cyber security is not our cross to bear. Yet, I believe that the rollout of 5G poses some serious questions for us all. For instance, how will our work be affected when a host country chooses to build the backbone of their 5G network with Chinese technology? If our work depends on an open, interoperable, secure, and user-centered digital ecosystem, will we be able to successfully operate in this country? Or does providing access to digital tools and services trump promoting the privacy and security of the people we work with? If so, how do we continue to support civil society or minorities, whose digital behavior might be monitored by state leaders? Will we be able to continue to uphold the Principles for Digital Development or champion the protection of human rights?

I certainly do not have the answers to these difficult questions, but think that as a community we will have to confront these questions sooner rather than later. How we choose to answer them will inevitably define the future of our sector.