01 June 2007 - 03 June 2007

The long-term impact of the internet

Chair: Mr Tim Gardam

On this year’s first real weekend of summer sunshine, Ditchley took on its most ambitious subject of the current agenda and looked at where the age of the internet might take politics, society and business.  Conference participants were close to alarmed at their own audacity:  was this not like looking at the  long-term impact of  life itself?  We looked for vision and discipline in equal measure and, in many ways, we were lucky to find both.  But this Note cannot do justice to the range and richness of the discussion, from which each participant will have taken away his or her filtered version. 

The Chairman gave us wise guidance at the beginning  on what the conversation should be about:  how the internet would develop, how it would affect human society, how boundaries would be broken down and how order could be kept.  The internet was accelerating globalisation, but illuminating the failure of politics to globalise.  Would political leaders have to give way to the market state?  What would the internet do to us as citizens (and did “citizen” retain its familiar meaning)?  Which was more important, form or content?  Was it still possible to find a common core of factual news?  Would education become globalised?  What would be the impact if the digital divide could not be bridged, either within or between different cultures and communities?

The depth of expertise and authority around the table gave the debate a bias toward optimism.  The internet offered both promise and peril, but the promise carried a stronger weight.  It comprised a number of distinct revolutions.  First of all, the new web (we used “web” and “internet” interchangeably for the most part, but recognised that the internet was a wider instrument) was no longer about the presentation of content, but increasingly about cooperation and collaboration on content.  It was in effect a giant global computer, capable before long of linking inanimate things as well as people.  Then we were experiencing a demographic revolution, with the younger generation developing their brains in a different way from the baby boom generation.  It was just not true that younger internet users were glued to the screen, passively, as with television.  There was strong evidence that this was a highly informed generation, engaged and active.  Of course, huge numbers of people were being left behind by the digital divide.  But there were 400-500 million who were growing up differently because of the internet – enabled, educated and entertained in equal measure.

The new ways of communicating were stimulating a social revolution.  A new blog came on stream every second.  The speed with which people could connect up on a project or business activity was extraordinary.  A whole new etiquette was evolving.  This in turn was generating an economic revolution with business transactions transformed through innovation and new instruments.  The language of business was changing with it, but the quality of commercial transactions remained high.  Financial, economic, even industrial cooperatives were linking up through the internet, with huge implications for the way business was done, monitored and recorded. 

The educational norm had been that the teacher dominated the class.  Now material could be customised for each individual student and teaching was becoming much more interactive.  The data showed that this produced better learning and student motivation than traditional methods.  How this might be transferred to the developing world is covered below.

Perhaps the most pervasive revolution was affecting the institutions of democracy itself.  The business of government (and of ‘governance’) was changing.  Criminal applications apart, networking and access had raised the capacity of the private sector and other non-governmental areas to conduct activities without government assistance or control.  Political parties were losing out as fora for ideas and political discourse was mainly happening elsewhere.  If the familiar model of democracy was that, once elections had happened, government was a one-way broadcast outwards, now the younger generation would be likely to stop voting unless the process was interactive.  New models of engagement were being tried with digital consultation and brainstorming.  The frequency and pervasiveness of this was likely to accelerate in the coming period.

The scale and speed of what was happening sparked concern in many participants.   How could we possibly understand this infinite variety of possible changes and contain it within a structured society.  A digital divide could be imagined just around the Ditchley table.  Could the processes be controlled?  Was that even desirable?  It was all just happening, like the weather.  Nevertheless we gathered ourselves to look at some of the individual areas affected, encouraged by the thought that the internet in itself was a neutral phenomenon, open to good and bad use alike, and probably responsive to consultation, collaboration, interactive innovation and democratic engagement, just like the phenomena of previous eras.  We therefore rejected technological determinism and got down to our working groups in a positive spirit.

The group looking at politics and the media emphasised one thing above all, that the practice of politics and journalism had to be two-directional and inclusive.  The competition for space, profile and attention was enormous, but in the end people needed leadership and order and were interested in credible sources of facts and news.  Respect, trust and legitimacy were paramount.  The airwaves were full of new experimentation, with network models for the dissemination of messages, for fundraising, for organisation and for services.  The emphasis was changing quite quickly from the broadcasting of political messages towards interaction, consultation and collaborative participation.  All these and many other activities had to recognise that the internet was all about the users;  and since most people were interested in an internet-life balance, the threat of information anarchy was perhaps not so great. 

Those looking at the impact of the internet on global business emphasised that the internet, while powerful, was just an instrument.  Networks came first, with the internet acting as amplifier rather than generator.  Collaboration on everything from ideas to production was an enormously expandable theme and innovations were coming thick and fast.  So were the risks of competition.  This wider spectrum of possibilities meant that, while failures would be numerous, occasional accumulations of enormous amounts of wealth and commercial power would be a significant feature.  It was perhaps the corporate world where things were changing more momentously than anywhere else.  Significant companies, such as Microsoft, were fighting against the change in almost ideological terms, without much chance of stemming the flow.  There were different views around the room on the real economic effect of all this new activity, but most people agreed that market characteristics would continue in a reasonably familiar way and that some economic regulation, as for instance over competition policy, would be needed and possible.

This group also heard in detail about the initiative to bring a laptop to every child in the developing world.  This remarkable project, only recently launched, underlined the importance of education as a vehicle not just for change but for the management of change.  It also pointed to the possibility of some parts of the developing world leapfrogging into the modern era without going through all the stages experienced by the developed world.  But it was still uncertain whether donors and recipients yet realised the full potential of this approach.  The hierarchy of teachers over students was certainly likely to be affected and in many societies this would have cultural implications.  And what about the laptop content?  Would it be dominated by local requirements or would a massed distribution approach take over?  At this point there could be no clear answers.

The third group looked at regulation and policy.  Most people agreed that it was a fruitless task to try to  regulate the use of the internet in detail.  Certain identified dangers had to be addressed:  fraud, paedophilia, terrorist and other international organised crime networking, online suicide pacts, websites that broke the law in other ways and indeed crimes against internet systems themselves.  In other respects, the internet could not be policed from the top down.  A new form of cyber-subsidiarity had to be developed, with users encouraged to follow, in their own interests, informal protocols of good behaviour, self-regulation and cooperation.  Retrievability was discussed.  Would librarians come back into their own as guardians of otherwise non-retrievable material?

As for the scope for international action, the work of the Internet Governance Forum was explained in detail.  The International Competition Network now had over a hundred countries coordinating anti-trust type actions on mergers when they were warranted.  Other international institutions could contribute on standards and on several aspects of security.  The underlying philosophy, however, had in the view of most people to centre around multi-stakeholder regimes.  These needed to promote trends of dialogue and collective decision-making, to agree on ways of keeping participation open and constantly to consult, draft, re-draft and validate ideas and measures for the widest and best ordered use of the internet.  An increasing amount of work was expected to be done  in this area in the coming period.

While we did not get into extensive detail on security issues, the conference was warned that the potential for the increase of ungoverned space available to crime and terrorism was deeply worrying.  The opportunities for malign networking were, logically, as great as for the beneficial kind.  Governments and security institutions had to raise their capacity to monitor and confront these phenomena, even if they were prepared, as the conference recommended, to leave the overwhelming proportion of internet use to market influences and self-regulation.  An enormous amount of work would have to be done in this area too.

The conference realised that it would not be possible to draw firm conclusions from such an immense range of material.  But there were some identifiable trends of thought: 

-       the internet had to be classified as part of the world’s critical infrastructure and would change human society in unpredictable ways;

-       governments had to react imaginatively and actively if they were to retain enough capacity, relative to non-governmental areas, to retain authority;

-       regulation could not control the internet, but it should seek to protect citizens against the worst abuses and to restrict the amount of ungoverned space available to enemies of an ordered society;

-       successful democratic societies had in these circumstances to seek a balance between keeping opportunity open and empowering the right people.  Ways of promoting sophisticated social, political and communications patterns would be essential for this.  A new democratic etiquette had to be generated for the internet age;

-       business models would increasingly gravitate towards network collaboration, with the quirks of circumstance and competition producing a series of heavy hitters in most economic areas, whose influence would be major for a time but whose durability might prove quite short;

-       education was an absolutely key area in both the developed and the developing worlds, not only to build the right capacities for modern living but also to condition younger people to accept the compromises necessary for social cooperation;

-       leadership was beginning to take on new characteristics.  Tim Berners-Lee was not a leader in the traditional sense, but had been one of the most influential individuals of his era.  There was a danger that current political leaders would be left behind by the developments we were discussing, in terms of their legitimacy to exercise authority.  Decision-making processes might become very similar amongst state and non-state actors, in terms of the need to share protocols and information and come to collective decisions.  This would be a very difficult transformation for traditional politicians to make;

-       the digital divide was thus not just a phenomenon of difference between north and south, rich and poor, developed and developing, but also within societies between those who kept up with the changing tides and those who did not.  There would be plenty of people opting out of the race and succumbing to virtual agoraphobia. 

We were left wondering what in the end would ensure good order?  What was unprecedented about this situation in history was that non-governmental organisations and the individual in society had a far greater capacity than ever before to organise their lives with each other and across borders without the intervention or control of government.  Concepts of authority, legitimacy, sovereignty, trust – and even of the state – were bound to change.  Nonetheless we ended on a fundamentally optimistic note.  The capacity of society to adapt and the predilection of the vast majority of people for structure and order would ensure a series of corrections in favour of a stable society.  It was nevertheless going to be a bumpy and extraordinarily interesting ride, with the road ahead so opaque that even the meaning of “long-term” had to be restricted to five years or so.  It would be important for the instruments of this new power in the world to promote robust values and find a way of forcing them home.  The potency of ideas could be used in that sense as well as in others.

Ditchley was fortunate in having such a range of vision around the table for this debate to move forward.  It was certainly extremely stimulating, even if we could not settle on any consensual conclusions.  Our chairman must be thanked for his steady, open guidance which kept the conversational journey within limits.  And Ditchley will certainly have to come back to the subject before the long-term is up, perhaps to give a new meaning to Second Life.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Mr Tim Gardam
Principal, St Anne’s College, Oxford (2004-);  Chairman, Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism, University of Oxford (2006-).

Commissioner Sheridan Scott

Commissioner of Competition, Competition Bureau Canada (2004-).
Mr Tom Jenkins
Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer, Open Text Corporation, Ontario.  Formerly:  Chief Executive Officer, Open Text Corporation (1997-2005).
Mr Alexander Tapscott
Student, Amherst College, Massachusetts.
Mr Donald Tapscott
Chief Executive, New Paradigm, Toronto; Adjunct Professor of Management, Joseph L Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto;  Columnist, enRoute.  Author.
Dr David Zussman
Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management, School of Management, University of Ottawa (2005-);  Commissioner, Public Service Commission of Canada (2004-).  Author.

Mr Nicolas Dufourcq

Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, Capgemini, Paris (2004-).
Mr Francis Etienne
Chief Information Officer, French Foreign Ministry, Paris.
Mr Bertrand de La Chapelle
Special Envoy for the Information Society, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris;  Representative of France to the Internet Governance Forum, the ICANN GAC & UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development.

Ms Ayesha Hassan

Senior Policy Manager for Electronic Business, IT and Telecommunications and Executive, Information and Communications Technologies Policy, International Chamber of Commerce, Paris;  Head, Business Action to Support the Information Society (BASIS)

Ms Jutta von Falkenhausen

Attorney-at-Law, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr LLP, Berlin.

Mr Nitin Desai

Special Adviser on Internet Governance to the UN Secretary General.  Formerly:  Chair, Internet Governance Forum.
Mr Narasimhan Ram
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The Hindu (2003-);  Editor, Business Line (1994-);  Editor, Frontline (1991-);  Director, Kasturi & Sons Ltd.

Dr Maura Conway

Lecturer, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University (2006-).

Mr John Dryden

Deputy Director for Science, Technology and Industry, OECD, Paris.

Mr Michael Blakstad

Media Consultant;  Visiting Professor of Digital Media, University of Glamorgan;  Lead Advisor, Skillset IBD Scheme.
Mr Michael Crawford
HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2001-).
Mr Jonathan Fryer
Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Media Consultant.
Mr Matthew Kirk
Director, External Relationships, Vodafone Group Services Ltd, Newbury (2006-).  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1982-2006).
Professor Helen Margetts
Professor of Society and the Internet, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford (2004-);  Professorial Fellow, Mansfield College (2004-).
Mr Jeremy Olivier
Head of Multimedia, Ofcom.
The Rt Hon Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan
Life Peer, Labour (2005-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Alan Rusbridger
Editor, The Guardian (1995-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Andrew Stott
Deputy Chief Information Officer, Delivery and Transformation Group, The Cabinet Office (2004 );  Chair, UK Government Chief Technology Officers’ Council.
Mr Robert Webb QC
General Counsel, British Airways (1998-);  Bencher, Inner Temple.
Dr Nicholas Westcott CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1982-);  Director, Information and Technology Strategy Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2002-);  British High Commissioner-designate to Ghana.

Mr Armando Téllez-Velasco

Commercial Manager, BT Global Services (2006-).

Mr Harry Fitzgibbons

Managing Director, Top Technology Ventures Ltd (1986-)
Professor Jonathan Zittrain
Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation, University of Oxford;  Principal, Oxford Internet Institute (2005-);  Co-Founder, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School;  Jack N and Lillian R Berkman Visiting Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard Law School.

The Hon Mahlon Apgar IV

Visiting Fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford;  Waynflete Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford;  Partner and Managing Director, New York Office, Boston Consulting Group.
Mr Philip Bennett
Managing Editor, The Washington Post (2004-).
Professor Philip Bobbitt
AW Walker Centennial Chair in Law, University of Texas at Austin;  Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Mr Kamran Elahian
Chairman and Co-Founder:  Global Catalyst Partners (1999-).  Formerly:  Founder:  Centillium Communications (1997);  NeoMagin (1993);  Cirrus Logic (1984);  CAE Systems (1961).
Mr Charles Firestone
Executive Director, The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, Washington.
Mr Sarwar Kashmeri
Strategic Communications Advisor;  Columnist;  Host, Global Currents and New Hampshire Presidential Primary 2008, MP3 Interview Programs.  Formerly:  Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ebizChronicle.com Inc (2000-03).  Author.  A Member US Advisory Board, Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Nicholas Negroponte
Chairman Emeritus, MIT Media Laboratory;  Founder and Chairman, One Laptop per Child.
Professor Michael Parks
Professor and Director, School of Journalism, University of southern California, Annenberg (2001 );  Member, Council on Foreign Relations.
Dr John Van Oudenaren
Senior Advisor, World Digital Library Initiative, Library of Congress, Washington DC (2005-);  Adjunct Professor, BMW Center for German and European Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (2003-).

Dr Michael Levi

Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations, New York (2006-).

Dr Karin von Hippel
Co-Director, Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.