There’s no question that the internet has done a lot of good for the world, from expanding our access to information, to giving anyone with something to say a platform to say it on. But because the internet is such a powerful tool, various interests are always trying to control or change how it operates. To find out what forces might threaten the free internet in the future, the Pew Interest Group canvassed over a thousand technology builders and analysts. Their responses paint a picture of an online future that’s by turns promising and pessimistic. Pew has synthesized the results of the poll into four main threats to internet liberty, all of which are rooted in issues that have arisen in recent years.
The first threat Pew lists is “Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.” The problem here comes from governments and regimes during times of political turmoil. We’ve seen this happen in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, where governments have shut down communication pipelines like Twitter and Facebook during protests to make it more difficult for people to organize rallies. Additionally, China has a blanket policy of internet censorship that limits what sites and content its population can access. The experts Pew polled don’t see these issues going away in the next ten years.
The next threat also comes from governments, but in a different way. Experts predict, “Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.” In other words, fears about online privacy — and about who’s watching — will begin to shape and limit people’s behavior online. This threat comes out of news like the revelations made by Edward Snowden regarding NSA surveillance. “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,” says Peter S. Vogel, Internet law expert at Gardere Wynne Sewell.
The third threat to online liberty many experts identified was this: “Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.” This topic includes issues like net neutrality, copyright protections, patents, and the tendency for governments and corporations to focus on short-term gains over securing online freedom for everyone. These are complex issues individually, but if all or some of them play out in worst-case scenarios, the internet of the future could be far more restricted than it has been in the past.
“Commercialization of the experience may come to bound or limit the expectation that many people have of what the Internet is for,” said David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. On the same topic, an unnamed post-doctoral researcher said, “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.”
The final theme identified by the Pew Research Group is “Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.” That is to say, there’s so much content online now that we need algorithms like Google’s search engine to find content that fits what we’re looking for. The problem is that when we let companies filter what we find online, they have an enormous amount of power over us. And since companies are out to make money, their financial incentives may steer them to show us certain things, and hide other things.
Despite these concerns (and others you can read more about here), most people canvassed for the poll were optimistic about our online liberty over the next decade. When asked the question “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?” 35 percent of the respondents answered a pessimistic “yes,” while 65 percent answered an optimistic “no.”