How often do you consider how the Web might change in the next few years the years, and where it'll be in 2025? If you check out the new report from the Pew Research Center, titled "Net Threats," you might just find out — and it may not be the answer you were hoping for. A canvassing of more than 1,400 experts on the state of the internet, it paints a mixed view of our digital present and future — in which new advancements push the pace of human communication, while security concerns usher in an era of surveillance.
The report is part of the Pew Research Internet Project's "Digital Life in 2025" series, which assesses the present and near-future state of our online lives, with the countless political and legal issues that could arise. And the authors stress to say that it's not a survey, but a canvassing — the respondents themselves opted-in, as opposed to the researchers ensuring a representative sampling of internet experts.
But with that disclaimer admitted upfront, it sure is an interesting read about what knowledgable people think — and fear — about the internet's present and future.
1. Corporate Action May Slow the Information Flow
Companies don't like losing money. We've seen this in the response major corporations have had to the rise of the internet age, and the potential for their content to bounce around the internet free of charge. It's basically what the entertainment industry's push for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was all about in 2012, a bill (authored by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, pictured there) which sought to add sweeping new copyright protections to online content.
While SOPA ultimately fell to a massive outpouring of public opposition, it's a safe bet companies aren't going to stop trying, and the spigot of information and content we all take for granted now could get a little tighter in the years to come.
Net neutrality looms large in the minds of these observers, as well, with the commercialization and segregation of spaces of the internet spurring fears that the equality of the online landscape will be disrupted. Responded PJ Rey, PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland:
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.
2. Surveillance and Security Could Continue to Loom Large
Pew solicited these expert opinions from November 2013 to January 2014, as The New York Times blog points out, which was amid the height of mainstream media coverage of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who explosively leaked evidence of the agency's large-scale internet surveillance program. As such, it's no surprise that privacy and trust weighed on the respondent's minds. Professor and research scientist Kate Crawford had this to say to Pew:
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.
In other words, the free and casual flow of information online could be hindered by both surveillance itself, and the desire of users and programmers to protect themselves from government surveillance as well.
3. Repressive Governments Will Get Better at Limiting Access
It's not just companies and the NSA getting involved in restrictions, oversight and surveillance — some of the world's most overtly repressive governments engage in this kind of behavior as well, in a somewhat more direct fashion. Iranians, as an example, live under a number of internet blockades, prevented from using Facebook and Twitter among so many others (even though President Hassan Rouhani gets his own account).
This is no small thing. When the disputed results of Iran's 2009 presidential elections sparked widespread protests, the use of social media proved crucial for the dissent. As countries get better and better at controlling and regulating the internet, the thinking goes, they'll continue to do so with increasing zeal. Paul Sasso, a consulting associate professor at Stanford, said as follows:
The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites.
4. Not All the Experts Agree With Each Other
This is maybe the most consequential takeaway of them all — there's nothing even close to a consensus about these issues from amongst these hundreds of experts. This seems pretty inevitable, given the scope of the canvassing and the opt-in nature of it — people who have strong opinions about the state of the internet and its future are likely going to feel more motivated to chime in.
But not all of the people Pew spoke to were full of doom and gloom about coming developments in control, surveillance or commercialism. For every takeaway listed above, some people chimed in to voice a dissenting view. For example, Professor Paul Jones of the University of North Carolina sees a fraught path ahead for online freedoms, but thinks it's a battle that'll be won:
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.
See? There's a little cautious optimism for you, even if it still strikes a troubling note. You can read over the full report here, and if you have the time, it's definitely worth it.