Experts Say Four Threats Put Internet Freedom at Risk
The open nature of the Internet faces several threats over the next ten years that could severely curtail online liberty, according to a new report
published by the Pew Research Center. The think tank released their survey of more than 1,400 analysts and experts as part of their series called "The Web at 25."
Most respondents said they believe the way individuals access information won’t significantly change for the worse by 2025. However, the research identified four key threats that pose serious concerns, including (1) efforts by nation-states to maintain political control by filtering, blocking or segmenting the Internet, (2) erosion of trust stemming from government and corporate surveillance, (3) efforts by corporations to further commercialize the online world, and (4) attempts by individuals to filter their own online exposure to combat information overload.
Great Firewall of China
The report highlighted attempts by governments such as China to control the flow of information across the Internet by restricting access. Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey were also singled out for their attempts to prevent their citizens from viewing content their governments find objectionable.
Even in Britain, "ISPs block sites the government considers ‘terrorist’ or otherwise dangerous,” Dave Burstein, editor of Fast Net News, pointed out in his response to the survey.
While blocking terrorist communications can obviously be beneficial, some industry watchers are concerned about the related threat of government censorship growing out of control, even in democracies. Burstein noted that, “There will usually be ways to circumvent the obstruction, but most people won’t bother."
Other experts quoted in the survey argued that opposing trends will counteract government censorship efforts. “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,” Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society, wrote in his response.
Surveillance, whether by governments or corporations, was cited as one of the most significant threats to online freedom. Being vulnerable to monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) or the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), for example, poses a growing concern. Other respondents argued that technological innovation will give users a way to circumvent attempts to monitor their online activity.
The End of Net Neutrality
Efforts by Internet Service Providers to monetize network traffic also threaten the free flow of information, as companies favor certain content providers over others. Antiquated copyright and patent laws may also stifle communication as intellectual property owners aggressively enforce their legal claims.
“The extension of copyright terms back into the near-infinite past will reduce what can be shared,” wrote Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International. Meanwhile, efforts by individuals to counteract information overload may overshoot their mark, creating unnecessary barriers to content sharing.
However, many experts quoted in the survey said they believe the economic benefits of an open Internet will win out, and that laws that govern intellectual property will become more flexible. The technology employed by individuals to filter information overload is also likely to improve over time.
On a final positive note, Ericsson engineer Joel Halpern predicted that, "the trend towards making information more widely and easily reached, consumed, modified, and redistributed is likely to continue in 2025."