December 14, 2008

The Future of the Internet III

Scenario 4: The Evolution of Privacy, Identity, and Forgiveness

Prediction and Reactions

PREDICTION:  Transparency heightens individual integrity and forgiveness. In 2020, people are even more open to sharing personal information, opinions, and emotions than they are now. The public’s notion of privacy has changed. People are generally comfortable exchanging the benefits of anonymity for the benefits they perceive in the data being shared by other people and organizations. As people’s lives have become more transparent, they have become more responsible for their own actions and more forgiving of the sometimes-unethical pasts of others. Being “outed” for some past indiscretion in a YouTube video or other pervasive-media form no longer does as much damage as it did back in the first decade of the 21st Century. Carefully investigated reputation corrections and clarifications are a popular daily feature of major media outlets’ online sites.

Expert Respondents’ Reactions (N=578)
Mostly Agree  45%
Mostly Disagree  44%
Did Not Respond  11%

All Respondents’ Reactions (N=1,196)
Mostly Agree  44%
Mostly Disagree  45%
Did Not Respond  10%
Note:  Since results are based on a nonrandom sample, a margin of error cannot be computed. The “prediction” was composed to elicit responses and is not a formal forecast.

Respondents were presented with a brief set of information outlining the status quo of the issue 2007 that prefaced this scenario. It read:

People openly share more intimate details of their lives online every day, and they are flocking to social networks and uploading and/or viewing homemade videos by the millions. Ubiquitous computing is diffusing into everyday life. Much of what goes on in daily life is more visible – more transparent – and personal data of every variety is being put on display, tracked, tagged, and added to databases. The number of mobile camera phones in use will top 1 billion in 2007; miniaturized surveillance cameras are simultaneously becoming extremely inexpensive, sophisticated, and pervasive; clothing is being designed with technology woven into the fabric; and it is expected that most surfaces can and will be used as two-way interfaces in the future.

Overview of Respondents’ Reactions

The comments supplied by respondents, who split their vote evenly, were widely varied. Some noted that transparency is an unstoppable force that has positive and negative impacts. The views of many could be summed up as: More transparency might somehow influence people to live lives in which integrity and forgiveness are more likely, but there is just as much chance it will not have any positive influence, in fact it makes everyone vulnerable, and bad things will happen because of it. Respondents believe the concept of “privacy” is changing, and that privacy itself is becoming scarce. They are equally likely to cite hope that privacy will be protected as they are to cite concerns that privacy will be threatened by emerging innovations. For citizens and consumers, tracking and databasing will be ubiquitous. Reputation maintenance and repair will be required. Some people will have multiple digital identities; some people will withdraw from a world where surveillance and exploitation is so easy.

The response to this scenario was evenly divided between mostly agree and mostly disagree. At least part of this reaction is due to the variety of issues the scenario encompasses; the multiple layers inspired a bounty of thoughtful insights that provide a wealth of telling detail about our times and our expectations for the times to come. William Winton, product manager for digital media for 1105 Government Information Group, wrote, “To be certain, social mores change; human nature does not. By making every action public we open ourselves up to scrutiny that, using more measured judgment, we might not desire, either as individuals or as a public. Humanity perhaps is not as evolved as our conceits would have us think. While there is private behavior that befits public scrutiny (there always is), there is a great deal that does not. To make everything ‘transparent’ is to lay bare our own shortcomings. Does this humanize us or make us ever more vulnerable to ill-considered attack, calumny, or worse? Will this discourage future potential leaders who may be fully qualified in every respect, but feel restrained by past behavior that might come to light? Are we to be exposed as being ‘all-too-human,’ or taken to task? Ecce homo?”

A number of respondents noted a generational divide, among them Alex Don, linguist and educator, who wrote, “This is not a world in which I would be comfortable living. The younger generation however, having grown up with these cultural backdrops, will adapt fairly well to this type of scenario or they will not be able to partake of their brave new world.”

Jerry Michalski, founder and president of Sociate, wrote, “Gen Y has a new notion of privacy. The old ‘never trust anyone over 30’ will turn into ‘never trust anyone who doesn’t have embarrassing stuff online.’” And Lynn Blumenstein, senior editor for Library Hotline, Reed Business Information, commented, “A significant minority…will opt out of the transparency scenario, which will remain the domain of the young.”

It must be noted that a vast majority of the respondents to this survey are not of the “digital generation”; they are over 30 and thus may not have the same sensibilities in regard to this question as those who actively participate in emerging online communications forms of all types. Age differences are a probable influence on the quantitative result on this survey question. Many said the pendulum of people’s trust in one another will swing from more to less.

“New innovations come in and sometimes become major tidal waves of change,” explained Walt Dickie, executive vice president and chief technology officer for C&R Research. “But they tend to be over-played and soon their internal contradictions and dysfunctional, over-zealous applications become clear. Then there’s a pullback, and the change is integrated more sensibly into the culture. Thesis/antithesis/synthesis, remember?”

Peter Kim, senior analyst for Forrester Research, responded, “Although society will seem more transparent, most people will guard many private aspects of their lives with great tenacity.”

ICANN board member Roberto Gaetano, says there will be a mixed future in regard to transparency. “We will probably have a distinction between ‘public’ people, who will be exposed more and more to openness and transparency, and will consider that a necessary condition for being a public person, and ‘normal’ people, who will have more the tendency to hide in anonymity,” he wrote. “The pressure for transparency in public people will come from different pressures. For politicians, for instance, it will be considered a prerequisite for office. But the people who do not have the need for divulging personal information will develop even more fear than they have today that private information might be used by wrongdoers.”

Roderick White, editor of Admap Magazine, summed up the position of many respondents when he wrote, “Obviously, there are two possible views of how this will develop. At present, there is clearly a developing backlash against the exploitation by third parties (from insurers to recruiters to sexual predators to all-purpose criminals) of such transparency as already exists. Given the evident desire of a large proportion of humankind for five minutes of fame, it may well be that we do all come to wear our hearts on our home pages, but the potential downside is there, and it should only take a few major scandals to change this climate. I’d say the jury was out, and the prospects pretty evenly balanced.”

“As author of ‘The Transparent Society,’ I agree that this is the best of many difficult possibilities. The alternatives are far worse. We must adapt. In an open world at least we’ll be free,” wrote futurist and writer David Brin.

Transparency Makes Everyone More Vulnerable and Technology Will Not Change Human Nature

Many of the respondents who did not agree with the scenario took a dim view of the future framed by this prediction. Marco Rivera, an Internet specialist for Vistronix, an information-management firm, wrote, “Ubiquitous computing (UC) does not change human nature. While I’d like to believe that most people will use UC to create a more open and ‘forgiving’ society, there are always those who will use it to substantiate, defend, and evangelize their particular bias. UC will re-enforce ancient hatreds and may even radicalize those who in past times would have been uncommitted and unconcerned.”

Jim Horning, chief scientist for information systems security for SPARTA Inc., a former fellow at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, wrote, “Yes, there will be a lot more information about a lot more people readily accessible to a lot more people, but inequality will continue, and those with the most power will have the greatest influence on what will receive widespread attention and what will quietly disappear from view. Character assassination will continue to be a blood sport, now carried out on a global scale. The division of society into mutually distrustful enclaves, each taking seriously only what appears in media it trusts will enhance neither integrity nor forgiveness.”

Frank Thomas, a respondent who chose not to share his place of employment, wrote that the scenario does not take cultural differences under consideration. “In 2020 the majority of global Internet users will live in China, India, Indonesia, and other Asian countries with a completely different culture of shame and of identity,” he responded. “The scenario also implies that the trend towards increased transparency will continue without limits. The massive identity frauds that become more and more common will make people more hesitant in publishing (real) individual information on Internet. As people can play with multiple identities, a large overload of fake information mixed with genuine will limit the trend towards transparency. So, in 2020 there will be an Internet world with a heightened transparency, where fake and genuine information is mixed and another one with restricted transparency. Concerning forgiveness, this has nothing to do with technology but with cultural values.”

“Viciousness will prevail over civility, fraternity, and tolerance as a general rule, despite the build-up of pockets or groups ruled by these virtues,” wrote Alejandro Pisanty, ICANN and Internet Society leader and director of computer services at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. “Software will be unable to stop deeper and more hard-hitting intrusions into intimacy and privacy, and these will continue to happen.”

John Jobst, an IT specialist for the US Army Corps of Engineers commented, “People are going to realize that their privacy is becoming non-existent and resent the intrusions. Personal tabloid journalism will be so prevalent that reputation corrections and clarifications will be almost impossible to make. As more people try to hide in the corner to prevent the public spotlight from shining on them, forgiveness will shrink and intolerance will grow.”

Mack Rhoades Jr., Web services product manager for Michael Baker Corp., projects that more people will feel the need to hide their identities. “People will be less open as more private sector or government intrusion occurs,” he predicted. “Being ‘outed’ causes people to become less transparent and take more measures to hide or protect their identities.” 

Nancy W. Bauer, CEO and editor-in-chief of WomenMatter Inc., noted, “People are learning the hard way that everything they say or show electronically will never disappear—and will never be forgiven. This is already the case. Nothing disappears.”

Paul Jones, director of ibiblio.org at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, commented, “We all yearn for the idea of the village or the small town until we feel how they work to stifle individuality. Transparency will be painful and asymmetric. So yes, more sharing and more knowing, but forgiving? The small-town accommodation might be made, but not without costs and sanctions.”

Benjamin Ben-Baruch, senior market intelligence consultant and applied sociologist for Aquent, wrote, “Privacy will become increasingly compromised and increasingly important. People will pay a premium for services that limit practicable access to so-called ‘public’ information about them, and an underground will be created where people can try to hide from being surveilled and recorded. Organized crime will attempt to forge identities, mask identities, corrupt data about individuals, and sabotage databases of private information. Increasingly, there will be a gap between those who are protected from surveillance and from having private information exposed and those who lack privacy.”

Several respondents noted that high-profile people are likely to continue to be the most exposed. Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, responded, “I disagree that the public will become that much more forgiving. Worse, there will be sins defined in the future that most people are not aware are sins today, and the records of those sins will come back to haunt the future as better AI-enabled search technology finds them.”

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, an expert on humanitarian issues with the Open Society Institute and Physicians for Human Rights, commented, “Far from leading people to become more human and more forgiving, the ‘always-on’ exposure of the Internet and aggressive data scraping by the IT industry will lead to more and more forms of escaping responsibility through subverting identity and the use of hacking and anonymous avatars and such, and will also lead people to become more and more conformist and tribalist and fearful of the opinion of the mob online. The new media will become more and more intrusive and aggressive, more and more unforgiving, and there will be a backlash by the rich, the famous, and the criminal to find ever-new ways of hiding or confusing this aggressive new power. The noise of a million confidences blaring all the time will drown out the meaning.”

Social media researcher danah boyd called the survey’s scenario “wonderful science fiction but dreadful social-science prediction,” writing, “There are two populations that most users want to avoid at all costs: those who hold power over them (parents, teachers, bosses, governments, etc.) and those who want to prey on them (corporations, marketing firms, bullies, etc.). We are going to see a lot of chaos around privacy in the next 13 years, yet I don’t think that we will have equilibrium by then. Realistically, the only comfort we will reach will be over embarrassing material. I think that we’ll be far less embarrassed by our pasts once everyone’s are out there in some form or another. My prediction is that we will find ways of using content to talk at different levels, just as writers have in the past and just as Chinese activists do now. Much of the ‘private’ content will be produced in a way that is publicly palatable and can be read at multiple levels by those who are closer to the individual. Already, this is what teens are doing with their SNSes (while they are also trying to restrict access using whatever means are available).”

And Nick Dearden, campaigns manager for Amnesty International, wrote, “There is a rapidly expanding trend for the Internet to be used by governments and companies to exert control over what individuals can and cannot say, and the ways in which they can use the Internet. In more-repressive countries, anonymity and privacy are the key ingredients in creating an Internet useful in the battle for expanding rights and social change. As the desire and ability to control the Internet spreads, privacy is likely to become more important in more countries.”

Transparency, Along With Its Associated Positives and Negatives, Is an Unstoppable Force

The respondents who mostly agreed with the scenario expect that transparency will prompt people to cut each other some slack. “Web 2.0 is all about transparency,” wrote Gerard LaFond, founder of red TANGENT, a marketing agency. “When we hit that tipping point where there are more people online participating in social networks and sharing personal information, then privacy no longer matters. This is a scary proposition, but it’s already happening. The good news is this creates all-new social mores and fosters a new order of morality.”

Jeff Jarvis, Buzzmachine.com blogger and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, says the issue is not privacy; it is about control. “The digital generation realizes that one cannot make connections with people without giving up something of oneself—you can’t meet skiers until you reveal that you ski,” he explained. “We will enter a time of mutually assured humiliation; we all live in glass houses. That will be positive for tolerance and understanding, but—even more important—I believe that young people will not lose touch with their friends as my generation did and that realization of permanence in relationships could—or should—lead to more care in those relationships.”

“In 2020, privacy will have emerged as a best-friend issue, where you tell the world what previous generations told their very best friends,” wrote Stan Felder, CEO of Felder Communications, a marketing company. Clement Chau, manager for the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University, commented, “Transparency in people’s identity will bring people together closer in 2020. Rather than struggling between public disclosure and privacy, people will leverage the power of the Internet and other social networking media to form their own identities. People will assume that you know who they are and who they want to be. We will fully understand that we all have different ‘selves’ that we affiliate with different social-cultural groups. As a result, action will be valued much more than first impressions.”

Mary Ann Allison, principal of The Allison Group, noted, “The past becomes less important in a society which is now- and future-oriented. Repressive control continues to diminish, not always for normative reasons…but also for practical reasons.” Virginia Bisek, Web content developer and writer, celebrates the idea of transparency, writing, “Anonymity has provided a safe haven for Cowards and Ignorants. Although this reeks of loss of privacy, the good outweighs the bad. Yes, people will pause before shouting or doing something stupid. We can only dream.”

Some respondents shared the expectation that repeated “outings” of people’s previous indiscretions will make their errors seem less egregious. “When we all have skeletons in our cupboards, having a skeleton in your cupboard won’t matter,” wrote one anonymous respondent. “Time dulls all outrages,” wrote John Jordan, an associate professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “A newly-minted teacher applying for a job at a children’s school may find it difficult to explain away Flickr photos and YouTube videos of wild partying from just a few months ago. But an older teacher who has a wilder side exposed from 20 years ago likely will not have the same difficulty explaining away a ‘youthful indiscretion.’ What will certainly be true is that, given the number of such pictures and videos available, they will not seem as shocking. Something else will have come along to satisfy our shock-quotient.”

Nikki Waters, manager of the Internet services group for Kaiser Permanente, responded, “By 2020, the dark secrets that used to (perhaps rightfully) be things you should be ashamed of will now be ‘okay’ because people will be desensitized.” And Hank Dearden, director of business development for Digital Industry Inc., noted, “People won’t care about past indiscretions mostly due to fatigue, which is, I guess, a form of acceptance.”

A number of people agreed but qualified the agreement. “The bar of acceptable behavior will be set higher and we will be more tolerant,” wrote Ted Coopman, a communications technology lecturer at San Jose State University. “However, I think that outing extreme deviancy for public figures will still grab attention and ruin people. Look for more libel suits and therefore more care in what people accuse others of.”

Some respondents cautioned transparency cuts both ways. “The opportunity to find more and more people who share our interests and appreciate our points of view encourages us as individuals to be more open about who we are,” commented Kent Kirschner, media specialist for Neighborhood America, an online community-building company. “This will continue to evolve and open up as today’s activities become ubiquitous. Simultaneously, we will see a rise in predatory behavior.”

Nicholas Carr, author of the Rough Type blog and “The Big Switch,” observed, “This scenario is a great example of wishful thinking. By 2020, the Internet will have enabled the monitoring and manipulation of people by businesses and governments on a scale never before imaginable. Most people will have happily traded their privacy—consciously or unconsciously—for consumer benefits such as increased convenience and lower prices. As a result, the line between marketing and manipulation will have largely disappeared.”

Some people who expressed views against the scenario’s likelihood pointed out cultural differences across the globe as a reason, but at least one respondent saw the blending of global mores coming as a result of an expansion of familiarity and transparency. “We may find a massive amount of change as our societies integrate a general base view and allow for niche attitudes and ways of life,” responded Robert Eller of Concept Omega, a marketing company. “Already we see this reality in larger Western cities where people play their daily public role and due to a greater amount of anonymity are also able to live ‘their’ lifestyle viewpoint with little risk of desocialization. In the US it was virtually a stoning offence if you were to be divorced/be gay/be female/be black etc. as a candidate for president; German chancellor Gerhard Schröder had his fourth wife…and did anybody give a hoot? Nope.”

Privacy Will Be Both Protected and Threatened Through Innovations

Some respondents projected that systems will be adapted to afford at least some privacy. Bertil Hatt, a researcher of Internet and social services and innovation valuation for France Telecom and Orange, proposed the following 2020 scenario: “Most individual data cannot be accessed unless by explicitly authorized relatives. Thanks to Semantic coding, almost any information can be accessed, but the main process by computers is done to prevent people from deducting the information they are not supposed to have. More generally, privacy is enforced by the fact that excessive access to confidential data can be revealed.”

Duane Degler, a designer and strategist for Design for Context and writer and editor of IPGems, which is focused on Semantic Web integration, agreed. “Increasing individual-level tolerance has been a trend in modern societies, and is likely to continue as the novelty of this format of data sharing wears off,” he wrote. “…It is probably not major media that will guard reputations, but background Semantic Web services and pervasive agents that individuals can control.”

Peter Bihr, a freelance consultant on Web strategies based in Berlin, wrote, “Social networking sites will, by 2020, long have incorporated strong mechanisms for privacy control by their users. As an exception, there might be social networks with strong incentives to really openly share personal data. These networks will be used by a large number of people, partly for financial reasons (free of use; vouchers or other financial rewards), partly due to lack of understanding of the effects (low education).”

Thomas Quilty, president of BD Consulting and Investigations, responded with this 2020 scenario: “As technology makes the collection of information easier—at times without the consent of individuals—laws are passed worldwide to protect the rights of an individual as to whether data collected even anonymously can be used or shared with others. Personal AI-presence programs that represent the individual constantly search databases—even private databases—containing information related to its owner for information in violation of the owner’s privacy-profile settings.  Data in government or private databases, if found to be wrong or illegally collected are disputed automatically without the individual’s intervention.”

Tom Vest, IP network architect and consultant for RIPE NCC Science Group, predicts there will be some moves aimed at reputation-blurring. “More people will opt for greater affectation (celebrity-style image management on a micro-scale) or obfuscation, e.g., using bots to generate personal ‘info-chaff’ to obscure actual online and offline behavior.”

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, responded, “The key issue with privacy is trust: will the organization to which I transmit private information use it in my interest? I am optimistic that we can move in this important direction.” 

And Jim Kohlenberger, director of Voice on the Net Coalition and a former White House specialist on telecom policy, pointed out this idea of a likely reality in the next few years: “Complicating this vision is that by 2020, storage is so cheap that a person’s entire life can be recorded in video, audio, converted to text and searched. Someone else’s life recording, in which you may interact and be a part, could become posted without your consent. Thus, new privacy protections would nonetheless be put in place along to prevent digital defamation.”

Our Concepts of ‘Privacy’ Are Changing

Many respondents agree that perceptions of privacy will change due to the changing communications landscape. “The same way having a tattoo today is no longer a barrier to career growth or social access, the standard for what is considered the ‘norm’ will continue to change,” predicted Bryan Trogdon, president of First Semantic, a company that leverages the Semantic Web. “The benefits of instant, autonomous social feedback (what movie to watch, where to vacation, which chair to buy) based on shared personal preferences will far out way the cost.”

John Eckman, a director with Next Generation Internet, Optaros Inc., wrote, “Our collective notions of privacy (there are many notions of privacy, not one notion of privacy, even today) will evolve—we will come to have a broader understanding of what it means to have a public record of statements going back to youth.  I’m not certain, though, that this will result in more integrity or more forgiveness. I guess that the context of everyone having such a visible record will make any one individual’s statements less impactful, but so far we have seen this tending towards more judgmental and discriminatory behavior, not more forgiveness.”

Blogger Richard Silverstein responded, “While I agree that notions of privacy, rectitude and sin will evolve over time in a freer direction. I don’t think people will be more willing to sacrifice what they view as essential elements of privacy. This will still be a realm in which people will see a virtue in protecting the most personal and intimate facts about themselves and their lives.

Ivor Tossell, technology columnist and journalist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote, “YouTube ‘outings’ will indeed become more commonplace and accepted, as will evidence of putative politicians’ lewd and offensive senses of humor as 20-somethings. But one of the lessons of the Web thus far is that name-and-shame sites (remember www.dontdatehimgirl.com?) have had limited traction, despite their salacious premises. It seems more likely that a privacy-aware generation will instead take active ownership over its online identities, and instead of becoming comfortable sharing intimate information, move decisively to manage (and often limit) what the world sees, to its own advantage.”

Peter Eckart, director of technology at the Illinois Public Health Institute responded, “It’s more likely that people give in to having their personal information bought and sold in the marketplace, and kids grow up—and the culture changes—to not having understood the value of privacy at all, so they don’t miss it. 2020 will see the latter stages of a culture war, fought by older folks (I’ll be 58 that year) trying to hold on to what privacy is still left, and younger folks—distracted by the media marketplace—wondering what all the fuss is about.”

Scott Smith, principal at Changeist LLC, and others projected a divide, with more people consciously populating one of the extreme ends on a scale that goes from total transparency toward total privacy. “What seems more likely is a growing division between those who don’t mind transparency and operate out in the open light of day—warts, broadcasted SSNs and all—and those who choose to avoid disclosure of any kind,” he wrote. “The benefits of open disclosure/transparency will decrease as more people flood the open market with predominantly useless private information—constant location and status updates, multiple ‘cosmetically retouched’ life stories and vast amounts of visual pollution from their personal lives.”

Tracking Will Be Leveraged More, Surveillance Ubiquitous, Privacy Scarce

While most respondents concentrated on the aspects of the scenario tied to forgiveness and trust, others addressed the ways in which data about individuals’ lives will be collected and used. Sean Steele, CEO and senior security consultant for infoLock Technologies presented the following 2020 scenario: “Ubiquitous surveillance will allow those who are willing—or those unlucky enough to be forced—to place some or all of their lives online in real time for others’ entertainment (a la ‘1984,’ ‘The Truman Show,’ ‘Max Headroom’ and/or ‘Running Man’). Pervasive one-way surveillance by government and law enforcement will exist in all major cities and nations, as it will online, and GPS tracking of persons, vehicles, goods, and possessions, etc., will be commonplace and easily accessed for those willing to pay for it. Narrowcast advertising will be used in virtually every public area and retail space, and ads will be customized, personalized, audible only to the individual and only while in proximity to the good/service being sold. Spot promotions will target impulse buying habits like never before. Mobile devices and or RFID tagging will continuously communicate via short-range radio (e.g., Bluetooth) with corporate marketing databases, and marketers will cross-feed and share data in order to provide rich, up-to-the-minute, ‘three-dimensional’ profiles of consumers.”

Havi Hoffman, of the Yahoo developer network, wrote, “The volume and ubiquity of personal information, clicktrails, personal media, etc., will desensitize us. A super-abundance of transparency will lose its ability to shock. Maybe there will be software-driven real-time reputation insurance service, offering monitoring and repair to dinged reputations. This could be as ordinary as auto insurance or mortgage insurance is today, and as automated as the nightly backups performed by most online businesses. I don’t agree that this will make us any kinder, gentler or more open in our dealings with each other. I do believe the next generations will take a different view of public and private/ much as our take on social mores and self-expression has changed radically when compared to the time when our grandparents came of age.”

“Many people are not aware of the loss of privacy and freedom when they put all their data on the Internet,” wrote João Miguel Rocha Filho, director of DataOne, a provider of software for connecting to Linux based in Brazil. “Not only other people are doing use of this data but also business enterprises, security agencies and all sort of government bodies. Also people are not aware that their info will drive others to access it – health (or lack of it), familiar life, financial life, political life, etc. The technologies in use now are very helpful to people but in time, without control, they may well be dangerous tools.”

Josh Quittner, executive editor of Fortune Magazine, wrote that he expects privacy will be exchanged soon when it is decided that complete transparency is required for safety: “Total transparency for total security! Sounds Orwellian. Is Orwellian. Sadly, it’ll be our response to the next major terrorist event in the US (and then elsewhere).”

Some Expect People to Withdraw

A number of respondents said as people begin to see how their personal information is being collected in databases and used they will begin to back away and become more careful about public displays of private materials. “Backlash” was a word used in many responses.

“The backlash against social networking’s incursions into personal privacy is already beginning,” commented Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University and expert on Internet governance and technology policy. “People will adjust their behavior to be more careful about the possible future uses and abuses of information about themselves. There will be more data, and more things done online, so there will be much more to keep track of and to hide.”

Richard Osborne, Web manager for the University of Exeter, wrote, “I suspect more of a backlash as unscrupulous and manipulative people start to understand just how much power they can hold over others using freely available online information. Perhaps a couple of nasty cases will lead to a shift in public perception and changes in the law.”

Susan Mernit, an independent consultant and former executive with Yahoo! and America Online, predicted, “By 2020, we will have a backlash against openness and privacy and have a series of private networks that individuals can use with greater anonymity—they will be premium, secure channels. Rather than forgiveness, society will negatively rate a larger number of people and a backlash against transparency will occur—the New Privacy of smaller and more elite networks will rule.”

Scott Brenner, a Web developer and consultant for Fortune 500 companies, noted, “There will be major data breaches and other negative aspects of all this ‘openness’ that will cause some people to push back. Schools, employers, potential romantic partners, neighbors, etc. will routinely obtain personal information on others (and use it for both good and evil purposes) that would have been nearly impossible to uncover in the latter part of the 20th century.”

Many respondents indicated that all of this will cause people to want to drop out of sight, off “the grid.” Chris Miller, senior vice president for Element 79, an advertising agency, wrote that he sees three factors at play in his mostly-agree answer to the proposed scenario: “1) Lack of privacy will force people (who don’t want public outing) to live their lives more openly and not commit the ‘indiscretions of the past’—if anyone could tell if anyone was lying, people wouldn’t lie. 2) There will most likely be a few high-profile murders, kidnapping, etc., based on someone monitoring another individuals’ information. This will at first create a privacy backlash but will push for more openness. 3) Coming off of number 2 and a bit of ‘who’s watching the watchmen?’ there will be a small part of the population who continues to live off the grid to an even greater extent. They will not trust the new notion of privacy. This will at first be people who have ‘dropped out’ but then will continue with their children, who are born off the grid and stay out of the openness of society.”

Reputation Repair Will Be Commonplace

There was a high level of agreement on the growth of the reputation-maintenance business. “In 2020 your online identity will be more important than your physical one,” wrote Mark Youman, principal at ICF International, a Washington, D.C., consulting company.

A number of respondents expect to see people of privilege and power managing to rise above the exposure likely for the lower classes. “A high level of transparency (through profiles, user ratings, feedback, and other mechanisms) will be necessary for doing business by 2020—you simply won’t be invited to the table if you don’t provide that type of information, predicted Jason Stoddard, managing partner for strategy at Centric/Agency of Change. “Of course, gaming the system will be the new ‘search optimization’ of the day, but ‘found media’ will typically correct any gamed records. The highest social status may indeed be the people who are truly invisible, unknowable, and opted-out of the system, since this will imply that they have large amounts of money and power.”

Patti Nelson, a Webmaster who works on US government sites, wrote, “This has started; reputation cleanup services are already in business. Interesting though that this type of transparency might encourage people to behave better. It’s as though people are creating a global Big Brother by choice.”

Matt Gallivan, senior research analyst for National Public Radio, commented, “I see there being two main options in the future: 1) people shut themselves off to the interactive world and as a result lose the massive value and utility that sharing offers, or 2) people accept that utility and value and, in so doing, learn that everyone in this age—not just politicians and celebrities—has to work to maintain a carefully calibrated public-facing image. I don’t imagine many people will choose option one.”

Several responded that it’s not possible to completely rehabilitate a damaged reputation. “I do not really believe that reputation corrections are really functional,” wrote Oliver Quiring, a professor at the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. “It is much easier to destroy than to build up reputation.”

Brian Dunbar, Internet services manager with NASA, commented, “‘Truth’ will become a quaint 20th-century idea. Whatever gets the most hits, and most blog/MySpace/media coverage, will be accepted as fact.”

The portion of the scenario indicating that media organizations might publish reputation updates was mostly ignored and sometimes denigrated. “I got a big laugh out of, ‘Carefully investigated reputation corrections and clarifications are a popular daily feature of major media outlets’ online sites,’” wrote Infothought blogger Seth Finkelstein. “This combined ‘Carefully investigated,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘major media’ in one sentence and wanted it taken seriously. I think the reality is going to be more like ‘Sleazy reputation hit-pieces are a popular daily feature of tabloid media outlets’ online sites’ (like they have been as long as such media has existed—i.e. ‘yellow journalism’).”

And Hamish MacEwen, a consultant with Open ICT in New Zealand, wrote, “‘Major media outlets?’ You must be joking. Fragmentation and decentralization, combined with aggregation and collaboration will remove those legacy institutions and supplement them with a bewildering range of sources and opinions.”

Digital Identities Can and Will Be Multiple

A few respondents pointed out the complexities of “privacy” in a digital present and future in which people sometimes have more than one “self.” “Digital duplicity will become a high art,” wrote Greg Laudeman, a technology specialist at Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute.

Anthony Townsend, research director for the Technology Horizons Program for The Institute for the Future, responded, “Expect a whole new layer of social infrastructure for reputation and identity management to be layered on top of this. Social networks will proliferate, as will the ability to maintain multiple, sometimes conflicting identities and trails across each one. In the end, who will be the arbiter of what’s true and what isn’t?”

Barry Chudakov, principal of the Chudakov Company, a marketing and advertising agency, commented, “New digital identities deconstruct our singular notions of self, just as our ‘life on the screen’ obliterates the proscenium arch of literate theater. It is more than Pollyannaish to think that transparency heightens integrity and forgiveness; this ignores the growing dynamic of self and other merging, of copies and originals replicating each other. At stake here is our sense of self that grew up feeding on the alphabet and its linear outcroppings. I believe the more likely scenario is that we will realize that we must manage our digital identities, much as a corporation manages its messages and relations with the media.  Further, as our lives become more transparent, we will regard privacy much as Rousseau regarded nature once the industrial revolution threatened it. The rarity of privacy will only be slightly affected by reputation corrections and clarifications, because these will be seen to be as yet another identity foray, another option in the malleable sense of self which will define each of us.”

And Luis Santos of the Universidade do Minho in Braga, Portugal, wrote, “We do not need to go forth a decade to anticipate a much more complex (hyper-complex, as Qvortrup calls it) social environment. People will most certainly adopt more flexible identities and more public facets of those identities, and that will not produce enhanced transparency; quite the opposite. Still, transparency in that particular sense is not a very desirable goal in itself—it rhymes with conformity, and that runs against the pillars of knowledge appropriation and development.”

Cite this publication: Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson. “The Future of the Internet III.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 14, 2008) http://www.pewinternet.org/2008/12/14/the-future-of-the-internet-iii/, accessed on July 22, 2014.