The short answer is no, the internet, no matter how complex can never be conscious. The reason is it is made of electronic parts, not biological cells, and it does not have four billion years of trial-and-error evolutionary history nor can it reproduce itself with slight variations of itself (sexual reproduction). Okay, So far so good. But the problem with this argument is that it stops all arguments – saying in essence that consciousness belongs to biology, period.
Perhaps what we need to do is, firstly, try to decide what we mean by consciousness; * and secondly find out what it does and how it does it in humans and other living things. Then we can see if the internet or any complex network of computers can do the same.
Many, including the neuro-scientist, Christof Koch, believe the internet could ‘in principle’ be conscious. This is not surprising given Koch’s concept of what constitutes consciousness, the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness which he co-authored stated thus in July, 2012:
The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states…Nonhuman animals…including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates [that generate consciousness].
If the brain is not necessary for his idea of consciousness, then it goes without saying that anything complex enough can be conscious. This would mean that the internet can be conscious. See the discussion Consciousness and the Internet.
But there is another camp, which I think is the majority, especially among those active in neuro-biological research, which defines consciousness as a process that occurs in our neo-cortex, more precisely, in our pre-frontal cortex, the seat of the executive brain. According to this view, consciousness pertains to an awareness of the self, and of having free will. This means that I can put myself in another person’s shoes and look at myself from another viewpoint – something we are not aware any other animal does. As far as we know, when an animal is aware of the presence of another, it is just another, it’s neither Tom or Jane, much less what they think. **
This position almost assures that only humans have consciousness – even though other mammals, which also possess a neo-cortex could have consciousness, we do not yet know since they do not have language and cannot tell us.
But one thing we do share with all animals, including octopuses is the neurological substrate which generates a type of consciousness, more accurately a type of bodily unconscious consciousness. In humans, in fact, most of our neuronal and affective behaviors are unconscious (maybe as much as 98%), and consciousness is sometimes described as a spot light, a moment of attention that is directed at one particular area of our body or brain. While all our urges and actions arise unconsciously, the conscious brain, even if it does not initiate the action, has the power to veto, or stop it. (See my post Consciousness & Freewill – They Are Just Illusions).
Now if we take this second view of consciousness, the internet then in no way can be conscious – where is its executive brain with that veto power?
* Many biologists do not agree on what consciousness is, even less philosophers or the general public.
** However, in the case of a mother, some animals may be able to tell which one is her child, probably from smell or other chemical reactions.