Between revelations about government surveillance worldwide and ongoing controversy over net neutrality, it’s kind of difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Internet. So Pew surveyed thousands of Internet experts to see what they thought information access would be like on the Web by 2025. The 1,400 experts who responded were hopeful, but only sort of.
In “Net Threats,” Pew asked respondents a yes or no question and then let them add long answers. There were also open-ended questions where they could share thoughts. The question was: “By 2025 will there be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online compared with the way globally networked people can operate online today?”
Thirty-five percent of the Internet experts/analysts answered “yes” while 65 percent were more upbeat and answered “no.” But many elaborated that “yes” and “no” couldn’t fully capture their answer to the question. Many would have liked to answer both at once or said that they optimistically answered “no” because that is their earnest hope, if not quite their actual prediction.
Pew identified a few concerns that respondents raised repeatedly. For example, many experts wrote about how the free flow of digital information could be disrupted by nation-states attempting to maintain security or control through “blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.”
Respondents also wrote about the danger of commercial pressures, where decisions about the technical architecture of the Internet and/or structures for disseminating content and information will be affected by what is best for companies’ bottom lines and not what would be best for an open Internet. People also noted that curation efforts to reduce information overload online (or reduce what the report calls the “too much information/TMI problem”) could backfire by actually reducing productive content sharing.
Pew explains that the study is not a representative, randomized survey, and instead involved an “opt in” invitation sent to thousands of experts. The center chose potential respondents by researching people who are often quoted as technology analysts or have made productive contributions in previous future of the Internet-themed Pew studies.
Of course the respondents are speculating based on their expertise, but it’s useful to recognize the themes in their answers and read their arguments on either side of the freedom of information debate. Some are certain that if people want open access to information they will prevail in guaranteeing it, and others worry that government interests and market forces will make money the key to having your voice heard online, thereby effectively silencing most of the world’s population.
I’ll leave you with a response that offers a little bit of both sides, from Miguel Alcaine, the International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America. He says:
The Internet ecosystem will evolve, technically, politically, socially as to allow people to share all the content online they want to share. Although, there will be national borders being drawn in cyberspace, interoperability and connectivity will be crucial for all countries around the world. The challenges lie in the balance between sovereignty and connectivity and interoperability, between intellectual property and common use, between anonymity, privacy, and security.