The topic of consolidation and concentration in the Internet economy, along with these trends’ impact on innovation and evolving competition, consumer and data protection laws in general, and the Internet’s architecture in particular, is a complex one to research, analyse and understand. Indeed, in 2017 and 2018 an increased number of popular and academic works in different sectors and disciplines have prodded the topic from a variety of angles (many of which are cited in this work where relevant). But none of these have focused on the impact of these trends on the Internet’s multifaceted architecture – and this is an important finding in itself for the report. By failing to investigate trends in and across the application, services, and access layers, existing work on these trends is lacking a comprehensive understanding of the very characteristics which not only enable people to benefit from using the Internet on a daily basis, but which have also helped certain companies leverage their size to gain digital dominance.

In attempting to fill this gap and to contribute a more holistic understanding of both the existence and the impact of consolidation and concentration trends for the Internet and its architecture, the Global Internet Report project team adopted a multidisciplinary, mixed method approach to gather both primary and secondary data on these trends. A primary objective of the research design was to elicit and gather opinions and perspectives from the global Internet community (Internet Society members and staff, Internet policymakers, technologists, academics, business leaders, and others around the globe) about the key forces of consolidation and concentration and their impact on the future evolution of the Internet. The analysis and consolidation of these opinions and perspectives form the core of the findings in the report.

The work was conducted in two phases. The first phase was concerned with data gathering, and the second with analysis. The two phases were iterative: as the need for more data on particular issues arose in the second phase, more research was therefore conducted.

Each of these activities, and the data points which were created by them, are briefly described below.

Phase I: Data gathering

The project team gathered community and expert input through a number of elements:

  • An extensive literature review conducted by an external group of Internet researchers;
  • A community survey which attracted a significant number of responses
  • Regional round tables organised in partnership with independent local research institutions
  • Focus groups at various global and regional community events
  • Special chapter sessions with Internet Society chapters
  • Select practitioner and expert interviews

These are discussed separately below.

Literature review

To better understand and frame the perceived trends of consolidation and concentration in the Internet economy, the team commissioned independent researchers at DiploFoundation to review available popular and scholarly literature. The initial purpose of this desktop review was to provide evidence of trends (if available) to support and investigate the hypothesis that trends of consolidation and concentration are impacting the development of the Internet and the Internet Economy in particular, yet poorly understood, ways.

DiploFoundation particularly investigated certain priorities the project team had identified at an early stage, including:

  • What available definition(s) of centralisation and concentration are in the context of the Internet and the Internet economy
  • How potential trends of concentration and consolidation may be affecting the Internet and its users in developing regions, and traditionally marginalised people in developed and developing regions alike
  • How these trends are impacting the drivers identified in the 2017 Global Internet Report report
  • How these trends were being depicted in both popular media and academic journals, what themes were being focused on by other scholars and practitioners in the field, and where the research gaps might be
  • Whether there are specific cases that could be used in the project team’s work to illustrate trends, if relevant
  • Whether there are any existing indicators that could be used to measure the nature and extent of these trends

The researchers produced a comprehensive and useful background document with relevant sources and data points which fed into the final report.

Community survey

The literature review and other data discussed in this section were complemented by a global survey conducted over the course of a month in early 2018, with the intent to gather qualitative and quantitative data from stakeholders, experts and Internet users around the world. The survey was designed by the project team based on key trends identified in the literature review, and contained open-ended and closed questions. It measured respondents’ perception of the health of Internet abilities, the trends of consolidation and concentration, and how they are impacting the evolution of the Internet. The survey questions are available here.

In total, 1,550 survey responses were received, and approximately 73% of respondents self identified as Internet Society members. 27% of the respondents were from Latin America, with roughly the same number from Africa and Asia Pacific respectively (21%). 12% of the respondents were from North America and 16% from Europe.

The findings from the survey fed into Phase II’s analysis.

Regional round tables

The importance of gathering varied views from different regions was recognised as central to the project. Experience from previous years’ work reflected the need for improving developing country participation in any dialogue or process pertaining to the development of the Internet. It recognised the difficulty many stakeholders from developed regions, particularly in the Global South, face in participating in debates and processes relevant to the Internet’s governance.

To improve and bolster regional input, the project team identified a group of regional research centres or think tanks with strong research capabilities and a history of policy impact in their regions. The selected four regional partners were:

  • The Centre for Internet and Society, India
  • Research ICT Africa’s Digital Policy Project (affiliated to the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy, University of Cape Town), South Africa
  • Diálogo Regional sobre la Sociedad de la Información (DIRSi), Peru
  • Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), Brazil

The regional centres each hosted at least one round table or a similar exercise to gather primary and secondary data on the theme and its impact in each centre’s region in particular. They designed their activity for input themselves, and also used their own regional expertise to identify and invite relevant participants. The selection of participants was guided by the desire to reflect the views and interests of a diversity of stakeholder group and aimed for balance regarding interests, stakeholder type, gender balance, geography, and expertise.

Each centre prepared a detailed report summarising the main points made during the discussion.

Focus groups and special chapter sessions

As in previous years, the project team hosted a number of focus groups at various global and regional community events to gather more input about the theme, and also specifically invited Chapter members for calls on the theme. The events where the team held focus groups and round tables included:

EventsPlace (date of session)
Rights ConToronto, Canada (17 May 2018)
African Internet Summit (two sessions)Dakar, Senegal (10 May 2018)
WSIS Forum (two sessions)Geneva, Switzerland (22 March 2018)

The team also consulted with nearly all of its Chapters and Organisation Members at least once, and to that effect held a number of virtual focus groups with these stakeholders, including:

Chapter/regionDate, facilitated by
Africa Chapter (English)24 May 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg
Africa Chapter (French) 24 May 2018, facilitated by Constance Bommelaer
Asia Pacific & Middle East (joint session) (English)25 May 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg
Latin America & Caribbean (English)30 May 2018, facilitated by Constance Bommelaer
Latin America & Caribbean (Spanish)30 May 2018, facilitated by Nancy Quiros
North America (English)5 June 2018, facilitated by Mark Buell
Caribbean Chapter (English)13 June 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg
Internet Hall of Fame (two calls, English)19 June 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg
20 June 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg
Organisation Member Advisory Council (two calls, English)28 June 2018, facilitated by Constance Bommelaer
11 July 2018, facilitated by Carl Gahnberg

Data and insights gathered in these sessions were compiled and used in Phase II.

Practitioner and expert interviews

In addition to a number of informal conversations with stakeholders, approximately ten interviews were conducted with experts from governments, civil society, businesses, academia and the technical community. The interviews solicited views on how the Internet has changed over the past five years, on the trends of consolidation and concentration, and their consequences. To encourage the most robust set of views on the future of the Internet, the informal discussions used the term "Internet" in its broadest sense, encompassing everything from its structure, governance, and underlying technologies to access, usage, and connected devices.

Phase II: Compilation and analysis

In Phase II, the data collected in the first phase was compiled and analysed by the project team. The team identified common themes and developed a framework for its analysis by also consulting with other practitioners working in the Internet Society’s technical teams. Where necessary, the team, in an iterative manner, conducted more research to get a better understanding of specific themes.