The threats to the free and open nature of the Internet are many, from an Internet toll road to government censorship of social networks or websites. In light of these concerns, the Pew Research Internet Project surveyed more than 1,400 Internet experts in an attempt to see how optimistic the future of the Internet could be, and what challenges it might face.
Pew Research selected the year 2025, and asked the panel of experts to answer a series of yes or no questions, and to provide greater detail through comments. The key question: “Will there be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online,” compared to today? The general consensus was ‘no.’
Still, while 65 percent of respondents thought there wouldn’t be significant hindrances, many noted that this was their hope, and not their prediction. Most telling were the responses where participants were asked to elaborate on their answers. Strong themes emerged from these responses, including the nationalization of the Internet, increased surveillance and commercial pressures.
“The pressures to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites,” said Paul Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford University. The U.K.’s ‘porn filter’ has shown that other sites can easily be swept up in a broad base censorship program, which can block access to reproductive and human rights information.
“Because of governance issues (and the international implications of the NSA reveals), data sharing will get geographically fragmented in challenging ways,” Danah Boyd, a research scientist, said of the focus on Internet security.
Commercialization is an obvious problem, especially when it comes to issues like net neutrality. Respondents noted that net neutrality will be harder to defend as competing ISPs and providers continue to throw vast amounts of money at lobbying and lawsuits against the government. Experts also warned that the copyright debate happens behind closed doors, and consumers’ voices are not heard.
But not everyone surveyed was so pessimistic. According to Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain, “By 2025, every human on the planet will be online. The collision of ideas through the sharing network will lead to explosive innovation and creativity. We are just at the precipice of collaborative tools today. By 2025, we should have around 8.1 billion people online.”