What we know as the World Wide Web — the main way by which most of us access the Internet — just turned 25 this year. Its existence has allowed for all kinds of learning and free expression, coding and making, rule-breaking and platform-making. One American researcher even links the Internet to a decline in religious affiliation.
An estimated 5 billion of us are expected to have Internet access in the next decade, but what will the Internet look like then? How easily will we be able to get, share and create with it?
The Pew Research Center reached out to more than 1,400 tech industry leaders and academics, asking about the basic way the Internet will function come 2025. In the Pew report, the threats they see are geopolitical, economic and socially relevant. A lot of the Internet’s “future” is already expressed in the current. A few key themes:
1) Control means less freedom: Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.
Already, China is known for its “Great Firewall,” and social media crackdowns in Turkey and Pakistan lately show a global trend toward regulation of the Internet by certain regimes. And that’s without mentioning stepped-up surveillance.
“Surveillance … at the minimum chills communications and at the maximum facilitates industrial espionage[;] it does not have very much to do with security,” said Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official and board member for EURid.eu.
2) Trust is evaporating: “The next few years are going to be about control,” said danah boyd, noted Internet thinker and a researcher at Microsoft. Survey respondents told Pew that trust in open communications technologies will continue to evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance. We’ve reported on the U.S./China “Cool War” that reignited because of Chinese fears of American corporate surveillance; it’s just one flashpoint in a larger theme.
3) The lure of money endangers openness: There’s a serious worry that commercial pressures will affect everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information and more deeply endanger the open structure of online life.
This isn’t limited to prioritization for some content over others, which is the debate over net neutrality. Experts also expect that commercial pressures that preserve copyrights and patents mean the free flow of information will suffer. Leah Lievrouw, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, has a sense of hopelessness about it:
“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.”
There is more in the full report, such as the respondents’ take on what to do — and what companies will do — to help clear the clutter of content overload. (Hint: Some folks are concerned algorithms and other solutions will overcompensate ….)