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The ISOC 2017 Internet Futures Report


Survey and analysis reveal major
trends and drivers shaping the future of
the Internet and its impacts on society



Monday, September 18, 2017 - You can view the entire archived panel session online here: https://livestream.com/

What are the largest concerns for the future of the Internet? Here's an official list: The Internet as it becomes networked as part of the physical world (via the Internet of Things); the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence; cyber threats; the Internet economy and the fact that corporate interests almost never work toward the best long-term interests of the public; networks and possible fragmentation of the Internet; the role of governments in the standards and interoperability of the Internet.

These are the six “Drivers of Change” identified by the Internet Society (ISOC) in its 120-page 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future which was unveiled at a panel discussion Sept. 18 in Los Angeles, California.

The report is based on research ISOC began in 2016 with the intent to better understand the forces of change that will shape the growth of the Internet over the next five to seven years. ISOC gathered data from three global surveys and two regional surveys that generated more than 3,000 responses from 160 different countries, from interviews with more than 130 Internet experts and users, and from more than 10 roundtables. The resulting report offers 36 recommendations, their primary focus being on the fact that society has to respond quickly to adapt to weather tough challenges that endanger its future.

Experts leading the discussion tied to the report's release included Sally Wentworth, vice president of global policy development for the ISOC, Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles, Alice Munyua, ISOC board member, and Paula Corte Real, who was being honored as one of 25 global leaders under the age of 25 at the Internet Society's 25th anniversary events this week.

Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock
talks about artificial intelligence and the IoT

Leonard Kleinrock, a leader of the project team that made the very first Internet connection in 1969, led off by talking about experts' concerns over the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

"The Internet has always surprised us," he said. "The Internet of Things is coming. The Internet is becoming an invisible infrastructure. The AI side is a rather interesting one. Deep learning is offering to take over functionality that we may not be ready to yield to it.

"The systems being proposed now perform very well but they don’t tell us what they’re doing, they don’t provide any understanding of how they arrived at the way they operate, and if we give over functionality of great importance – be it personal or public – to systems that can’t explain what they’re doing, I worry, I worry a lot. Are they following the guidelines we set out for them? Will they hit a threshold that they don’t understand, where an optimized system collapses suddenly?

"I just worry about not knowing what these darned things are doing, even though they’re doing it beautifully. And the attacks and security issues are another concern."

Core values seem to be overwhelmed by profit motives and dark forces

The Internet relies on its community members to uphold its values Wentworth explained. “The Internet exists and develops in the way that it does because people take care that the basic principles and basic foundations of the Internet are in place,” Wentworth said. She reiterated several times during the panel session that remaining true to the core principles established by the earliest builders of the Internet is still the best path to the brightest future.

"The values that brought forth the Internet years ago," she explained, "are still valid today and should still guide the development of the future of the Internet going forward. The [neeed to continue to perpetuate the] values of openness and this notion that the user should be at the center of Internet technology really came through everything we heard from people we interviewed.

"But there was a very deep concern among the community worldwide that that might not be the case — that the nature of the Internet may be moving away from those values that are so important. There’s a real worry that they may not be sustained in the future."

The ISOC researchers who analyzed the data gathered in assembling the "Paths to the Future" report say the global Internet community is looking at the six drivers of change through the lens of three “Areas of Impact” — digital divides, personal freedoms and rights, and media and society.

Panelists were particularly concerned about the rising potential challenges of: advances in artificial intelligence; directing corporate and government attention to the desperate need for them to make the overall public good a priority when it comes to tackling looming security issues; the protection of personal rights and freedoms when it comes to cybersecurity; and addressing the digital divide.

Cybersecurity, surveillance and the Internet of Things are common concerns

Panel moderator Adnan Nawaz, a journalist formerly with the BBC, asked panelists how security concerns and surveillance by governments and corporations fit into the future picture.

“I think we draw inspiration [to address these issues] from the ways in which the Internet itself was developed and is continuing to be developed,” Wentworth said. “There was a tremendous amount of effort put forth by technical, commercial, governmental and civil society representatives in developing the Internet at a technical level. We have to derive some inspiration from that model and from that approach.

“The more you can bring expertise and stakeholders around the table to solve hard problems, the more robust the solutions will be.”

Kleinrock said governments may take measures to separate their nation-states from the global Internet due to security concerns. "The problem is that as these countries put boundaries down we’ll get a balkanization of the Internet and we’ll see little bits and pieces separated out from the larger open and free Internet, and as they pull out we all lose," he said. "I feel this will have a disastrous effect.

"There are ways to protect against that. One of the big concerns is security and surveillance. One answer is encryption — a partial solution is to change the architecture of the Internet to enable more protection against the dark side of the Internet, which has now bubbled up right in our face.

"I’d like to see more effort put moving forward into new architectural changes, for instance, there’s this far-out notion of homomorphic encryption — an encryption of our data in such a way that there’s never any decrypting of the data. That’s a far-off idea that’s being researched. But even if we get there, there is still a problem at the extreme edge, where the Internet of Things will be operating, moving ahead in a boundless, insecure fashion. So even if we get this architectural change in the Internet we’ll still have this [IoT] problem and that’s not being addressed properly at all."

Addressing the closing of many digital divides

Munyua is the founder of the Kenya ICT Action Network and has worked for many years to raise awareness about the widening digital divide between individuals with access to the Internet and those without.

According to ITU statistics, the global Internet is now being accessed and used by about half of the people in the world, with half the world as yet not tapping into the resources it affords.

Munyua said she is concerned that divides are growing.

“Developing countries that still have a long way to go, and the African continent in particular, have been left behind," she said.

"This is where I think, I believe, the next billion users will be coming from. The digital divide there is different.

"There are layers, in the African continent, for example. Various dimensions of the digital divide have to do with lack of education, lack of skills, the issue of income disparity, cultural issues that will continue to impact the way we use the Internet and will continue to impact the digital divide itself.”

Real, a Brazilian, expressed concerns about some global citizens' capacity to understand how to operate in the online world, noting that the digital divide is much more than a difference in regard to the Internet's reach and afforability; it also involves a difference in the capabilities and training of people who don't understand how best to use it.

“The digital divide is going to change from the word ‘access’ to ‘use’... we have to create producers,” Real said.

“We need to empower them and teach them how to use the Internet. We have a lot of things to pursue.”

The Internet Society's recommendations

The Internet Society's policy team came up with detailed recommendations after looking at the drivers of change while applying consideration to the areas of impact it identified as it considered the largest challenges and opportunities looming in the next few years of future of the Internet. The recommendations have been set forth by ISOC in this report in order to inform governments, businesses, civil society and other stakeholders about the most vital challenges and inspire them to act appropriately today to address emerging issues and the issues that are likely to lie ahead. 

ISOC's top 10 recommendations are best read in full in the full report. They are focused primarily on taking immediate actions to rebuild trust in the Internet and to ensure that future Internet community members can fully benefit from the socio-economic opportunities the Internet can provide:

  • Human values must drive technical development and use
  • Apply human rights online as well as offline
  • Put users’ interests first with respect to their own data
  • Act now to close digital divides
  • Make the Internet economy work for everyone
  • Take a collaborative approach to security
  • Increase accountability for data handlers
  • Build strong, secure, resilient networks
  • Address the need for online social norms
  • Empower people to shape their own future

- By Meg Malone

Click here to return to Imagining the Internet's homepage for its coverage of ISOC's 25th Anniversary

See still photos from this event and other scenes at the conference here

- Multimedia reports from the Internet Society's 25th Anniversary activities were conducted for the Imagining the Internet Center by undergraduate researchers Diego Pineda Davila, Melissa Douglas, Alex Hager, Meg Malone, Alexandra Roat, Jared Mayerson and Erik Webb of Elon University's School of Communications, under the supervision of Elon faculty members Janna Anderson and David Bockino.