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Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit

How do you know if a policy, technology, or trend will impact the foundation that makes the Internet work for everyone?

The Internet as an Evolving Ecosystem

What makes the Internet ‘the Internet’? Why was it adopted globally so quickly, and how does it continue to birth and sustain the latest innovations?

In just a few decades, the Internet has enabled global economic growth and improved the quality of life for billions of people around the world. While it may be hard to predict what’s next, to ensure the Internet’s future success we need to identify and protect what makes it unique.

The Internet is often described as an ecosystem because it is complex, diverse, and dynamic. An ecosystem is defined as a “complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships”.[1]

As organisms evolve and compete, and their environment varies, ecosystems are in a constant state of change. The Internet is similar. As networks develop, applications compete, and users adapt to a changing environment, the Internet is in perpetual flux: yet its foundation remains essentially the same.

Like an ecosystem, the Internet is not centrally designed; rather it evolved from a set of networking principles and technology building blocks that emphasized openness and interoperability and maximized interconnection – the number of interrelationships it could create. In contrast, other networking models and protocols – such as XNS by the Xerox Corporation, DECnet by DEC or the OSI by the International Standardization Organization (ISO) – didn’t succeed in becoming a global network as their hierarchical and centralized designs controlled and limited how networks and people could connect.

No one entity can design a true ecosystem. In fact, when people try, they fail. In the nineteenth century, “scientific forestry” was introduced in Germany.[2] Instead of different kinds of trees, bushes, and scrub, monocultural forests were planted in straight lines that were easier to monitor and harvest. Management of the simpler forests was done centrally as local knowledge was no longer needed, and their orderly appearance appealed to those

who liked systems to look and feel orderly. Initial timber yields were huge, but a century later the next generation of trees was small and weak. A new term entered the German vocabulary; Waldsterben, or ‘forest death’. The attempt to rationalize forests into a simpler system failed, disastrously. Why?

By simplifying a complex and dynamic system into a single desired output, the forest designers failed to see that diversity and interrelationships were not unnecessary waste but the source of the forest’s value. Tree monoculture was vulnerable to disease, and straight lines fell to wind, fire, and flood. Efficiency gains were cancelled by lower resilience, and yields collapsed when the new forest exhausted the long-accumulated soil ‘capital’ of the old. It took decades to re-create the diversity and resilience that had been destroyed by trying to re-design a successful ecosystem.

Although only decades old, the Internet is like an old-growth forest in its depth, variety, and ability to survive attacks and disasters and continually reinvent itself. It is a ‘network of networks’ whose value is the inter-relationships between different devices, applications, and uses linked by a common set of protocols. Its management isn’t centralized; instead, intelligence and autonomy are concentrated at the edges, in the hands of those running local networks. The Internet is a place everyone can enter, multiplying its connections and increasing their value for all. So, it is not just the technology, or its services and use that define the Internet, it’s how we network, which we call the ‘Internet Way of Networking’, that also matters.


[1] https://www.britannica.com/science/ecosystem

[2] Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State; How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1998

The Internet Way of Networking

To sustain the Internet’s value for our future, we need to recognize and protect what makes it unique. 

There have been many kinds of computer networks, but none of them have been embraced by so many people on a global scale and integrated into day-to-day life. What is it about the Internet as a ‘network of networks‘ that has evolved into an essential global tool, and a whole new space for innovation, growth, and transformation? 

The Internet owes its success not only to the technology, but to the way it operates and evolves. The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for advancing social and cultural understanding. The online environment empowers individuals to connect, speak, innovate, share, learn, and organize. There are virtually infinite opportunities in which we can use the Internet as a force for good. To make sure we can keep using it this way, we need to recognize and protect its critical properties. 

The Internet Society has identified the critical properties that define the Internet Way of Networking and underpin the growth and adaptability of the Internet.

The benefits of these properties have enabled the economic and technological development the Internet has brought around the globe.

Specific technologies and business models may come and go, but the Internet Way of Networking has been a constant foundation for the success of the Internet from the beginning. For the Internet of the future to be as innovative and sustainable as it has been so far, the critical properties need to guide its evolution.

Using the Internet Way of Networking as a lens through which we view technology and policy developments will help us ensure tomorrow’s Internet is open and vibrant for everyone.

While the critical properties are the foundational pillars of the Internet Way of Networking, they manifest themselves through the benefits they provide to anyone who uses, builds, develops, and operates various components of the Internet ecosystem.

Critical Properties of the Internet

An Accessible Infrastructure with a Common Protocol

Open Architecture of Interoperable and Reusable Building Blocks

Decentralized Management and a Single Distributed Routing System

Common Global Identifiers

A Technology Neutral, General-Purpose Network

Use Cases

The Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit Use Cases show how the critical properties of the Internet can be used as a compass to ensure regulatory proposals, technology developments, and trends support an Internet that works for everyone.

Use Case: Interconnection and Routing

How policies on routing and interconnection, and reduced autonomy of operators impact the Internet Way of Networking

Use Case: Intermediary Liability

How removal of intermediary liability protection impacts the Internet Way of Networking

Use Case: Data Localization

How mandatory data localization impacts the Internet Way of Networking

Threats to the Internet Way of Networking

What are some examples of the regulatory actions that could harm the Internet?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Internet Way of Networking?

The Internet Way of Networking is a set of fundamental principles needed to protect and enhance the future of the Internet. These are the foundational properties of the global Internet infrastructure at its optimal state, even as technologies and uses evolve. The Internet Way of Networking describes the ideal form of the global Internet and the culture that it embodies – universally accessible, decentralized and open, and facilitating the free and efficient flow of knowledge, ideas and information.

How does the Internet Way of Networking and Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit help us protect and enhance the Internet?

The Internet Way of Networking can help assess whether new ideas support the best potential of the Internet. Its five critical properties are a stable frame of reference to evaluate current networking conditions, proposals for technological development, regulations and technical governance arrangements. If a new development undermines or even reverses one or more of the critical properties, we now have an easily applicable lens through which to view its effects. As the Internet evolves, the Internet Way of Networking helps us evaluate incremental changes and external trends in a forward-looking way that keeps the fundamentals of success front and centre.

For policymakers and technologists, the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit (IIAT) can act as an additional layer of accountability and provides a roadmap for conscious and informed decisions about how to keep the Internet healthy.

What’s the difference between the IWN and the IIAT?

The Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit (IIAT) is based on the the Internet Society’s vision of the Internet Way of Networking (IWN). The IWN describes the foundation and ethos underpinning the architecture of the Internet. The IIAT is a tool to help us better understand the IWN’s unchanging critical properties that describe how the Internet is built and run, even as technologies and uses evolve. It was developed to help us assess the implications of change – whether those are policy interventions or new technologies.

Why does the IIAT have such a narrow focus? It does not cover issues that can be identified higher in the Internet stack.

The Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit has a specific focus: it identifies the critical properties of the Internet Way of Networking as they relate to the Internet’s infrastructure and describes the Internet at its optimal state. It also recognizes that without this set of founding properties, we wouldn’t have the Internet we know today. The critical properties of the Internet are the foundation of everything that has been built, supported or evolved since its original inception. The Internet Way of Networking follows the Internet Society’s vision of what the Internet is – a network of networks based on interoperability and open standards.

Why is security not identified as a critical property?

The Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit identifies the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions to have a secure and trustworthy Internet. The critical properties provide an agile and interoperable way of networking that allows adequate security technologies to be added when needed. Although security is a very important part of the Internet, in such a diverse and decentralized environment it is impossible to foresee all security needs. In the context of the Internet Way of Networking, security can be seen as an interoperable building block, underpinned by the critical properties.

Why does the IIAT describe an optimal state and not the current state of the Internet?

The Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit offers intentionally a “purified” vision of the Internet as defined by the Internet Way of Networking – although these properties do still exist, they may never have been fully manifested in the whole network at any point in time. We use this vision for two reasons: first, because they provide a baseline that can be used as a stable reference point to help policymakers or technologists determine if and how their policies or technologies affect the Internet; and, second, because the properties should constitute the positive vision for anyone engaged with the Internet.

How does the Internet Way of Networking relate to the Internet invariants?

The Internet Way of Networking builds on the groundwork of research on the Internet invariants. Whereas the invariants predominantly provided the benefits and/or consequences of the Internet, the Internet Way of Networking seeks to identify the foundational properties that give birth to such benefits. The critical properties of the Internet do not exist independently of the benefits they create, and the Internet cannot be seen only through the prism of those critical properties. This is what the Internet Way of Networking does – it provides a holistic view of why the Internet is the unique technology that we claim it is. The Internet is unique because of the combination of the critical properties — the Internet Way of Networking — and the benefits it generates. In this sense, the two projects are very close and should be seen in conjunction.

How will the Internet Society keep growing the body of research on the Internet Way of Networking?

The launch of the IWN and IIAT is only just the beginning. Going forward, we will focus on developing, amplifying, and using these tools globally. We will work with policymakers, the Internet Society community of chapters and members, and the wider Internet community around the world to amplify awareness of the IIAT and the critical properties of the Internet. The Internet Society will also be a resource to help people use the the toolkit to assess the effect technology developments and policy proposals on the Internet, and other ways we can help the Internet reach its full potential.

The Internet is for everyone, and we hope this work will help bring connectivity, innovation, and empowerment to all around the world.