July 3, 2014

Net Threats

Experts say liberty online is challenged by nation-state crackdowns, surveillance, and pressures of commercialization of the Internet


As Internet experts look to the future of the Web, they have a number of concerns. This is not to say they are pessimistic: The majority of respondents to this 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing say they hope that by 2025 there will not be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online today. And they said they expect that technology innovation will continue to afford more new opportunities for people to connect.

Still, some express wide levels of concern that this yearning for an open Internet will be challenged by trends that could sharply disrupt the way the Internet works for many users today as a source of largely unfettered content flows.

The Net Threats These Experts Fear

  1. Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.
  2. Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.
  3. Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
  4. Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.

We call this research study a canvassing because it is not a representative, randomized survey. Its findings emerge from an “opt in” invitation to thousands of experts who have been identified by researching those who are widely quoted as technology builders and analysts and those who have made insightful predictions to our previous queries about the future of the Internet. (For more details on this process, please see the section at the end of this report titled “About this Canvassing of Experts.” Respondents were allowed to choose to share their thoughts for credit or anonymously.

More than 1,400 people responded to the following yes-or-no question:

Accessing and sharing content online—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 answered “yes” while 65% more optimistically answered “no.” Yet some who answered “no” wrote in their elaboration on the question that their answer was their “hope” and not necessarily their prediction. Others wrote that they wished they could choose “yes and no.”

Those who expressed hope or the expectation that access and sharing will weather challenges between now and 2025 often noted that it may be possible that billions more people may gain access and begin sharing online over the next 11 years thanks to the mobile Internet revolution and the massive efforts underway now to connect more people across the globe. In short, they hope that the benefits of digital expansion will outweigh the risks.

Whether they offered an optimistic or pessimistic view of the Web’s future, all of the experts were asked to offer their own perspective on the threats or risks facing the Web, and their open-ended responses raise a number of key concerns. When participants in this canvassing were asked about access and sharing in 2025 they were also provided with the following additional prompts, to which some replied and some did not:

Please elaborate on your answer—Describe what you believe are the most serious threats to the most effective accessing and sharing of content on the Internet. What steps are necessary to block changes that would limit people’s optimal future capabilities in using the Internet? Bonus question: Describe opportunities that you expect that will help people realize the fullest potential of the Internet, or describe challenges you expect may stop people from realizing the fullest potential of the Internet.

Several themes ran through the elaborations people shared after these prompts, most of them centered on threats to the current structure and operation of the Internet:

Threat theme 1) Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.

The experts in this survey noted a broad global trend toward regulation of the Internet by regimes that have faced protests and stepped up surveillance of Internet users. They pointed out that nations such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey have blocked Internet access to control information flows when they perceived content as a threat to the current regime. China is known for its “Great Firewall,” seen as Internet censorship by most outsiders, including those in this canvassing.

Some respondents cited the Arab Spring as an example of the power of the Internet to organize political dissent and they then commented on how this prompted crackdowns by governments. Others cited governments’ application of broad rules that limit the exchange of all information in order to try to halt criminal activity.

A notable number of these expert respondents also mentioned Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of email and phone call records. They also cited such examples as the theft of customer account details from Target and corporate surveillance of consumers as giving ammunition to those who want to crack down on the content that flows online.

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.”

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.”

Some participants also predicted that regional differences in politics and culture will continue to spawn efforts to hinder access and sharing online. A professor at Georgetown University and former U.S. Federal Trade Commission official wrote, “Given the global nature of data flows, national parochial interests may prove to be a bottleneck. Already access and sharing are hindered by parochial national laws. The European Union’s privacy initiative can be a serious bottleneck, and the Safe Harbor regime is in jeopardy. Nationalism, and sovereign interests—for good reasons (privacy protection) or bad (economic protectionism)—are clear and present threats.”

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.”

The optimistic counter-arguments: Regulations promoting openness and/or innovation will trump control

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.”

Threat theme 2) Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.

A share of these experts express new urgency about surveillance. They predict that if unchecked, the monitoring of vast amounts of online activity will limit sharing and access to knowledge online.

Because of governance issues (and the international implications of the NSA reveals), data sharing will get geographically fragmented in challenging ways. The next few years are going to be about control.danah boyd, a research scientist for Microsoft

Peter S. Vogel, Internet law expert at Gardere Wynne Sewell, responded, “Privacy issues are the most serious threat to accessing and sharing Internet content in 2014, and there is little reason to expect that to change by 2025, particularly given the cyber terror threats confronting the Internet users and worldwide businesses.”

Raymond Plzak, former CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, and current member of the Board of Directors of ICANN, wrote, “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.”

Kate Crawford, a professor and research scientist, responded, “The increased Balkanisation of the Internet is a possible outcome of the Snowden revelations, as people seek to develop systems that are less accessible by the NSA/GCHQ, etc. Meanwhile, the dominant content companies may seek ever more rigorous ways to prevent the flow of copyright content within and across borders.”

The optimistic counter-argument: Innovations may provide some relief from surveillance

Oscar Gandy, an emeritus professor at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, wrote, “Regulatory limits on the uses of transaction-generated-information (TGI) that might even include fines and temporary exclusion from the marketplace might serve to reduce the amount of cognizable harm to individuals, groups, and institutions that rely on the Web for information and interaction. The challenge, of course, lies in our ability to identify those harms with sufficient clarity so that regulation would be effective without needlessly limiting the functionality of the network.”

Threat theme 3) Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.

A significant number of respondents predicted that increased monetization of Internet activities will hurt the ways in which people receive information in the future. Among their concerns: the fate of network neutrality; restrictions on information exchange affected by copyright protections and patent law; and governments’ and corporations’ general lack of foresight and capability for best enabling the digital future due to a focus on near-term gains.

Concerns over commercial influences altering the overall online experience were led by some of the architects of the Internet. David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted, “Commercialization of the experience may come to bound or limit the expectation that many people have of what the Internet is for.” And Glenn Edens, director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, said, “Network operators’ desire to monetize their assets to the detriment of progress represents the biggest potential problem. Enabling content creators to easily and directly reach audiences, better search tools, better promotion mechanisms and curation tools—continuing to dismantle the ‘middle men’ is key.”

While there is no one definition of Net neutrality, it is generally expressed as the idea that the best public network should be operated in such a way as to treat all senders and receivers of content as equally as is technologically possible while maintaining information flows well. Corporate goals to serve customers and shareholders can be in conflict with this.

The chief counsel for a major foundation wrote, “Collusive and anti-competitive practices by telecommunications operators threaten the re-creation of an Internet controlled by people.” A post-doctoral researcher wrote, “We are seeing an increase in walled gardens created by giants like Facebook and Apple … Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet. Communication networks’ lobbying against Net neutrality is the biggest example of this.”

PJ Rey, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland, wrote, “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.”

Dennis McCann, a director of computer training in Illinois, formerly a senior technical consultant at Cisco and IBM wrote, “The policy discussions today that are about service provision are mostly with last generation’s telecommunications companies. This for a network-neutral service! If we aren’t ready to make the courts take ownership of the Net and its implications, then a free Internet is history, since the service providers have no interest in the free flow of information.”

Others worried about the outcome of discussions among companies and governments on global trade and intellectual property and copyright in the Internet era. They complained that much of that deliberation cannot be monitored or influenced by the broad public.

Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, wrote, “There are too many institutional players interested in restricting, controlling, and directing ‘ordinary’ people’s ability to make, access, and share knowledge and creative works online—intellectual property rights holders, law enforcement and security agencies, religious and cultural censors, political movements and parties, etc. For a long time I’ve felt that the utopianism, libertarianism, and sheer technological skill of both professional and amateur programmers and engineers would remain the strongest counterbalance to these restrictive institutional pressures, but I’m increasingly unsure as the technologists themselves and their skills are being increasingly restricted, marginalized, and even criminalized.”

Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International, responded, “The extension of copyright terms back into the near-infinite past will reduce what can be shared. Increasing power of patent trolls will slow progress and put more energy into working around solutions, instead of moving forward.”

A self-employed consultant focusing on Internet policy and technology and longtime IETF leader responded, “We are headed into a really nasty period for accessibility of digital materials more than a few years old. People’s current prevailing optimism on those subjects is likely to turn out to be part of the problem.”

Some respondents expressed a sense of hopelessness in the face of economic and political forces.

A former chair of an IETF working group wrote, “Corporate influence on the political process will largely eliminate the public’s freedom to do as they please on the Internet at least in the US. I would like to see the Internet come to be regarded as a public utility, as broadcast spectrum was, but I think the concentration of power is too extreme for that degree of freedom to happen.”

Bill Woodcock, executive director for the Packet Clearing House, wrote, “The biggest and most important challenges we face are the impediments to people ‘doing for themselves.’ I don’t care about the ‘right’ to simply be someone’s customer. I want the right to compete, the right to replace any service, no matter how large or important or well-connected the company that provides it is, with a better, more innovative, startup service. That means fewer monopolies, fewer lobbyists, fewer licenses, and fewer bribes. As the economy continues to slide downward, all of these abuses are getting worse rather than better.”

The optimistic counter-arguments: Economic and social motivations can actually mitigate these threats

Marcel Bullinga, technology futures speaker, trend watcher, and futurist, said, “Sharing is hindered by ridiculous 19th century laws about copyright and patent. Both will die away. That will spur innovation into the extreme. That is the real singularity.”

Matthew Henry, a CIO in higher education, wrote, “Continued redefinition of the standards and cooperation of firms that enable sharing is critical.”

The principal engineer for an Internet of Things development company responded, “Access to the global Internet (with its associated content) will just keep getting better as that is how governments/industry will make money. And this will trump all other concerns.”

Josh Calder, a futurist with the Foresight Alliance, expressed confidence that threats to Net neutrality will be routed around. He responded, “Splintering based on corporate control of content and pipelines appears to be the greatest danger, at least in the developed world. It seems likely that steps will be taken to avoid barriers like an end to Net neutrality and the further erection of ‘walled gardens,’ and to keep the dangers of cybercrime sufficiently in check so that accessing content will not be significantly hindered.”

Clark Sept, co-founder and principal of Business Place Strategies Inc., wrote, “Online content access and sharing will be even better and easier by way of personal digital rights access. Sharing freely will be recognized as having greater long-term economic value than strictly limited controls over ‘intellectual property.’”

Threat theme 4) Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.

Another concern is that people’s attempts to cope with information overload will lead to constraints on content flows. They argue that algorithm-based filtering systems inspired by attempts to cope with large amounts of information can have as many negative consequences for the Internet as positives, especially when most companies providing filtering services have economic incentives to present information in a particular way.

Joel Halpern, a distinguished engineer at Ericsson, wrote, “While there are pressures to constrain information sharing (from governments and from traditional content sources), the trend towards making information more widely and easily reached, consumed, modified, and redistributed is likely to continue in 2025 … The biggest challenge is likely to be the problem of finding interesting and meaningful content when you want it. While this is particularly important when you are looking for scientific or medical information, it is equally applicable when looking for restaurants, music, or other things that are matters of taste. While big-data analysis has the promise of helping this, there are many limitations and risks (including mismatched incentives) with those tools.”

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, predicted, “To help people realize their fullest potential, an industry of ‘personal information trainers’—by analogy to personal trainers for fitness—will form to help people find and access information that is interesting and useful for them. Reference librarians played this role when we went to the information repository called a library. As the volume of information continues to grow exponentially, personal information trainers will help us with the much more daunting task of creating a virtual dashboard to access the information of value to us, much of which we did not know was out there.”

There was no explicit counter-argument to this theme, but some respondents’ answers implied that they felt algorithms and analytics and people’s own search strategies would improve and produce a relatively happy equilibrium where people got what they wanted and also were exposed to new ideas and material that they would appreciate.