IGF-USA participants broke into three different rooms to discuss three different, possible potential-future scenarios for the Internet in 2020. In this session, the description given to the discussants was: Social networks and online applications “in the cloud” are far advanced by 2020; and in many ways, innovation and users’ rights are drivers. The economic crisis and environmental concerns from the early days of the 2010-2012 years have been addressed in a way that has seemingly calmed and addressed concerns about privacy and security in the online worlds. The introduction of mandated digital citizenship training in preschools and primary schools has spread around the world. Advances in software and other technological advances have made it possible to rely on network-based language translation and young people, in particular are avid, and full users of the always-switched-on world of applications and services. However, the advent of the always-switched-on world has introduced a new form of digital divide – the divide between Millennials and the ‘other users’ of the online world. The reliance on appliances and networks drives huge consumption of energy, and the search for solutions in energy and disposal of e-waste continues. Climate change and environmental pressures have continued to grow, and developing countries have established strict prohibition rules against digital dumping. The role of intellectual property protection is unclear and, in many ways, users are left on their own to find solutions to challenges they encounter online.
Details of the session:
Ironically, in the scenario titled “Users Reign” the impression created by the world-building introductory document handed out prior to the event is one of users becoming so enamored and so integrated with the progression of technology that by the end of the illusory prophetic future it’s the Internet and huge swarms of users, not the individual, that truly is in charge.
The potential-future scenario discussion was co-facilitated by Pablo Molina, chief information officer at the Georgetown University Law Center, and Dan O’Neill, executive director of the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC).
The scenario posits a rapid integration of private information within the cloud which leads to an erosion of privacy in the face of the desire to share information. It imagines that technical self-awareness progresses to the point at which even the performance of various devices and appliances is aggregated and shared to lead to rapid-fire technical support and troubleshooting. Another point made in this scenario is that leads to the decentralization of major media outlets, with citizen journalists assuming an exponentially larger role and in light of that, the eventual degradation of emphasis on copyright law. And the scenario proposes that a breakthrough in solar battery technology allows for a massive expansion in the capabilities of communication technologies, particularly within the developing world. Active language translation applications also allow for the breakdown of traditional walls that had previous divided cultures.
O’Neill said the lessening of privacy does not imply that privacy concerns will depart, as the massive amount of new users who are hopping online without proper context to know how to manage their own privacy will undoubtedly lead to new and increasingly pressing points of contention.
An audience member noted that the identities people operate under online aren’t always completely truthful, with Facebook profiles in many cases becoming increasingly self-censored and deceptive depending on the users with whom a profile-holder may be interacting.
Participants in the discussion questioned the viability of Facebook’s apparently inevitable growth, which is a presumption of this scenario. They pointed out consumer perceptions of Facebook’s service, the natural boom-and-bust nature of such online-focused firms and also asked just how flexible large networks such as Facebook can be in adjusting their monetization initiatives to the preferences of their users. One audience member pointed out that the degradation of privacy is not inevitable, and said there may be a shift against the monetization of personal information.
Part of IGF’s mission has been to expand the accessibility of the Internet. This is taking place today through a greater implementation of mobile technologies, the adaptation of platforms for disabled individuals and outreach to those in far-flung regions. In the ‘users reign’ scenario greater accessibility is a given impetus for growth.
The discussion turned to ways in which governance could be accomplished with users in control. A question looming on the horizon for IGF is whether the multistakeholder approach might become too unruly to be effective. One possible solution that was offered involved IGF taking on a more advisory, educational role. Another revolved around providing a venue for end users to have more of a voice at IGF, and in the greater debate on the future of the Internet as a whole. With the Internet becoming increasingly integral to modern society, it is becoming increasingly politicized. It was noted that there could be a greater number of new global political entities similar to the Pirate Party springing up.
It was pointed out that the true instance of users reigning, one which, unlike many possible futures or policies, was met rather warmly by everyone in the room, could lead to an IGF 2020 conference with 100,000 individuals participating, bringing the discussion away from being limited by the barriers of logistics and economic constraints, and more toward the ideas and ideals of those the policy influences on the most basic levels at all times.
Questions for discussion
1. Reactions to the scenario.
2. Gauging the desirability or aversion to the scenario.
3. What is the role of organizations such as ICANN and IGF in such a scenario?
4. What about nationally-focused and other global organizations?
5. What might these organizations look like in 2020?
6. What advice should be given to IGF in light of this scenario?