Between the exposure of global surveillance projects, the slow creep of censorship into our lives, the tightening of Web control and the increased power of corporations to influence what we can and cannot access online, it's not easy to remain optimistic about the free internet.
Internet blackouts in war-torn countries, censorship masquerading as protective forces in the UK and beyond, CISPA and SOPA, lacklustre and naive attempts to stem the flow of file sharing by firms rather than tackling the core route of content access, and regulations pushed through by those who understand nothing of the web (who can forget the UK Police Commissioner's claim that "Tor is 90 percent of the internet"?) — the list of forces attempting to wrestle control of the internet carries on.
It is these factors, rather than cybercrime or hacking, that internet experts believe pose the greatest threat to the internet in the next 20 years.
According to a new report from research agency Pew's Internet and American Life Project, published Thursday, over 1,400 experts — ranging from academics to tech professionals — believe governments and corporations have the most potential to change the face of the web, and not for the better.
The report (.PDF) asked these professionals what the most threatening influences on the internet are through 2025. While many experts said that technological innovation will provide jobs, an economic boost and more opportunities for people around the globe to connect, there were "wide levels of concern" that actions by nation states will lead to more blocks, filters, segmentation and censorship of the internet.
These attempts at control will be made — and already have been made — for security and political reasons. The report noted that Internet regulation has been most widespread in countries where regimes have faced protests, such as in Egypt and Turkey, and these countries block web access to control information flows and crack down on communication if it appears to be a threat. In addition, China's use of the "Great Firewall" is well known, used to limit the flow of information and to stymie dissident voices. There have been cases when political and activist bloggers in the country have faced jail time due to their writings on the web.
Paul Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford University, said:
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 Pew, the second threat to the internet in the future is evaporation of trust in governments, in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future. Naturally, Edward Snowden and his revelations about the US National Security Agency's (NSA) worldwide spying comes to mind, and privacy issues may end up limiting sharing and access to knowledge online. Governance issues and data breaches — such as Target's loss of millions of user accounts to cybercrime — may hamper what future businesses can do on the web, and what they are trusted to keep safe and secure.
Raymond Plzak, former CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, and current member of the Board of Directors of ICANN said:
The inconsistent protection of privacy, whether private information is voluntarily provided or not, as well as the inconsistent protection against exploitation will continue to be the bane of connected environment. The inability of local, regional/national and international private and public sector entities and their attendant societies to cooperate to produce a universal accepted privacy and anti-exploitation environment will increase the likelihood of the limiting of connected activities.
The third threat is that of commercial pressures and corporations impacting user experience. The rush to make money from the internet could hurt open internet access in the future, and one current example is the row over Net Neutrality, with telecommunications firms lobbying to change the system to suit their profit margins.
Net Neutrality is the principle of treating all senders and receivers of content as equally as possible, and not ranking providers based on arguably anti-competitive principles. However, corporate goals can, and have, conflicted with this idea.
Among the survey respondent's concerns are the fate of network neutrality, restrictions placed on the flow of information and affected by copyright protection, and both a governmental and corporate "lack of foresight" to secure a strong digital future.
PJ Rey, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland commented:
It is very possible we will see the principle of Net Neutrality undermined. In a political paradigm where money equals political speech, so much hinges on how much ISPs and content providers are willing and able to spend on defending their competing interests. Unfortunately, the interests of everyday users count for very little.
Lastly, the "TMI" — too much information — problem will paradoxically lead to too little information online. In other words, filtering efforts to control the flow of information to make it more manageable could have the opposite effect, and constraints on consumer flows might be imposed.
Read the full report (.PDF).