In a thought-provoking — and somewhat alarming — survey by the Pew Research Internet Project, a large number of experts expressed a wide range of fears in their prognosis for our global online network.
But despite the concerns raised about nation-states clamping down on free expression online, increasing intrusions into our privacy and other threats to a thriving and democratic Internet, the experts’ collective conclusion is pretty fuzzy: As the report points out, a whopping 65 percent of the more than 1,400 respondents said that they did not predict a “significant changes for the worse” in the way we “get and share content online” in 2025 compared with today.
That’s pretty optimistic, right?
Well, as the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing reveals, the worries are much more subtle. For while most experts “said they expect that technology innovation will continue to afford more new opportunities for people to connect,” many of them voiced deep concerns that “an open Internet will be challenged by trends that could sharply disrupt the way the Internet works.”
As Silicon Valley’s own futurist Paul Saffo over at Stanford put it:
The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.
According to the breakdown in the report, experts most feared these Net threats:
- Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.
- Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.
- Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
- Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.
The report then goes on to quote from scores of its esteemed respondents. Here are some of the more pithy:
Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official, board member for EURid.eu, and Internet Society leader predicted, “Surveillance … at the minimum chills communications and at the maximum facilitates industrial espionage, it does not have very much to do with security.”
Dave Burstein, editor of Fast Net News, responded, “Governments worldwide are looking for more power over the Net, especially within their own countries. Britain, for example, has just determined that ISPs block sites the government considers ‘terrorist’ or otherwise dangerous. This will grow. There will usually be ways to circumvent the obstruction but most people won’t bother.”
(And for a real-life example of how a nation-state’s policies can seriously threaten freedom of speech on the Internet, just read this post by my colleague Brandon Bailey about Google’s “right-to-be-forgotten” moves in Europe.)
Still, despite all these furrowed brows in the bunch, the report also includes many counter-arguments from experts who, while not necessarily predicting either the demise or the survival of the Internet as we know and love it, make cogent and hopeful observations about its future. Here are a few:
Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, responded, “Historic trends are that as a communications medium matures, the control trumps the innovation. This time it will be different. Not without a struggle. Over the next 10 years we will be even more increasingly global and involved. Tech will assist this move in a way that is irreversible. It won’t be a bloodless revolution, sadly, but it will be a revolution nonetheless.”
Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society and contributor to the P2P Foundation blog wrote, “There’s a lot of work underway now in developing open-source, interoperable, and encrypted versions of social media, in response to the increasing authoritarianism and state collaboration of existing walled-garden media.”
Jim Hendler, a professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and architect of the Web, wrote, “If anything, it is privacy that will have to give way to openness, not the other way around… Repressive governments will be working hard to stop the spread of information. As today, there will be both good and bad news continually in that area, but over time more integration, access, and sharing will be a driving force.”
In other words, the sky may not be falling over the Internet after all.
But then, who knows?
Illustration from Wichita Eagle/KRT archives