IGF participants broke into three different rooms to discuss three different, possible potential-future scenarios for the Internet in 2025. In this session, the brief description given to the discussants noted that “Government Prevails” scenario imagines a future affected by man-made and natural challenges and disasters – wars, civil strife, an aging world and interventionist governments. This scenario assumes that while “the ICT industry, media companies and NGOs” are the leading players on the Internet stage today [some people might disagree with this assumption], by 2025 governments and inter-governmental organizations will have come to rule the Internet as a result of actions taken to protect particular interests from negative exposure.
Details of the session:
A small group of Internet stakeholders from various sectors met to discuss the Government Prevails potential-future scenario at the Internet Governance Forum-USA 2011 at Georgetown University Law Center.
The audience-participation session was led by facilitators Pam Covington of Verisign, Walda Roseman of the Internet Society, Steve DelBianco of NetChoice and ex officio leader Marilyn Cade of ICT Strategies.
This scenario sets up a closed-off future for the Internet. You can read the one-page PDF used to launch this discussion here.
The potential future drivers of change people were asked to consider included:
- Manmade and natural disasters push governments to exert more control over Internet resources.
- Changes in the Domain Name System force intergovernmental organizations to impose new global regulatory regimes.
- Networked image sensing through devices such as Kinect and GPS are used to identify and track people, with positive and negative effects, but the net result is a global surveillance culture.
- Governments limit bandwidth for video conferencing when they find revenues for hotels, airlines and other travel-related economic entities in sharp decline.
- Lawsuits and other developments cause governments to create blacklists of websites prohibited from Internet access.
- Anonymity on the Internet is brought to an end as a response to viruses, worms and credit card fraud and user authentication is required.
- Governments take every opportunity to coordinate and consolidate power under various mandates for global solutions and by 2025 governments and law enforcement are deeply embedded in all aspects of the Internet.
NetChoice Executive Director Steve DelBianco began the session by sharing the drivers of this future and what the Internet might look like in 2025.
“The scenario at its key is an attempt to be provocative about a potential future,” said DelBianco, who emphasized this session was supposed to search for what could be plausible and to develop opinions on the possible benefits and disadvantages of a future and what could be done to mitigate its impact.
“Is this the George Orwell scenario where it is a question of not whether but when?” Roseman said.
Although there was a list of questions the leaders intended to discuss, the session quickly turned into a running debate, bouncing from topic to topic as the participants introduced them. Two main themes quickly emerged.
The first was the conflict between security versus privacy.
Carl Szabo cited the situation in London, where hundreds of security cameras were added to city streets with the intention of reducing crime. The result was criminals adapting to the increased surveillance by wearing hooded sweatshirts.
“As we give away these rights and privileges for alleged increased security, it’s not necessarily going to return with security,” he said.
Slava Cherkasov, governance and public information officer, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (known as UN DESA), brought up the recent case of Brooklyn boy Leiby Kletzky, who was allegedly abducted, murdered and dismembered by a stranger, Levi Aron. In that case, it was a security camera outside a dentist’s office that led to Aron’s arrest, confession and the recovery of the boy’s body within an hour of viewing the footage.
Judith Hellerstein, with the D.C. Internet Society, said that government use of data is acceptable when there is an understanding about privacy and intent.
“You also have to sort of figure out how governments are going to use that technology in hand,” she said.
In the scenario, an issue was introduced, based on reality, where pictures of protesting crowds were tagged, allowing for the identification of people at the scene of a potential crime.
Elon University student Ronda Ataalla expressed concern over limiting tagging in photographs, because it is a limit on expression. But David McGuire of 463 Communications reminded the people in the room that civil liberties traditionally don’t poll well. “Free speech isn’t there to protect the speech we all like,” he said.
DelBianco expanded the tagging issue to raise the issue of “vigilante justice,” people using debatably privacy-violating practices to identify people they consider wrong-doers, and brought up Senate Bill 242 in California, which would alter the way social networks create default privacy settings for users. This bill was narrowly defeated 19 to 17 June 2.
Chris Martin with the USCIB talked about how not all companies are interested in using their technology for ill or personal gains, listing Google and their withholding of the use of facial recognition technology to protect people’s privacy.
This subject is also related to the second main discussion topic: the government versus industry and the private sector. Covington questioned Martin about whether he saw governments developing that same facial recognition technology, as described in the scenario, and using it to monitor citizens.
“Some,” was his reply, before adding that all Internet governance was about maximizing good and minimizing evil.
There was then a brief discussion about the Patriot Act and relinquishing civil liberties online in the circumstances of a national emergency. Who decides when the emergency has passed?
Szabo and others questioned if the government was even the right organization to take over in the event of a disaster. “It’s much easier to say, ‘Let them deal with it so I don’t have to,’ but the question is, ‘Will they do it better?’” he said.
Cherkasov said not necessarily, mentioning that when Haiti was struck by the severe earthquake in January 2010, it took two weeks for government organizations to develop a database to search for missing people, but in Japan in March 2011, it took Google only 90 minutes to come up with the same technology. He then returned to the security camera situation, concluding that citizens were the first line of response and information in a disaster scenario.
“There will always be maybe an ebb and a flow but it’s the power of the people that will ultimately be able to create that balance,” Roseman said. “But it’s going to have to be a proactive effort to get and keep that balance.”
Roseman also said one of the benefits of the industrial and private sector was an ability to use funds more freely than the government, which, presumably, does operate on a limited budget.
“When you have governments and the private sector and industry working together, you generate a lot more money and opportunity to drive change,” she said.
McGuire, though, expressed concern that industry and the private sector have some misconceptions about the power of the Internet, believing that it is too powerful for any law or government to cut it down. He said many, including those in the area of Silicon Valley, Calif., think the Internet will always be able to circumvent policy.
Most session participants seemed to agree that the potential scenario was troubling.
“It makes me want to move to somewhere where there are more sheep than humans,” joked Covington.
But Brett Berlin, of George Mason University, said that the Internet, and the choices that are made about governing it, are ultimately people-driven decisions, reminding the rest of the room that technology works for people and not the other way around.
“If we are foolish enough to think that open Internet will fundamentally allow us to be better, we are making a mistake.”
– Rachel Southmayd
A selection of Twitter reports on this IGF-USA 2011 event:
This discussion is about the future of the Internet if governments step in with more regulation. #IGF2011-USA
Steve DelBianco of NetChoice introduces the potential 2025 scenario and the drivers behind it possibly happening. #IGF11-USA
#IGF11-USA Govt. Prevails scenario flows around the co-existence of privacy and security and how that delicate balance takes place.
Governments are concerned about their role and about meeting security needs of citizens in dealing with the Internet. #IGF11-USA
This is the George Orwell (“1984”) scenario. “Is it a question of not ‘whether it will take place’ but ‘when'”? -Waldman #IGF11-USA
Discussion of surveillance cameras throughout London and positive and negative effects of panopticon. #IGF11-USA
Slava Cherkasov, United Nations DESA, notes value of video surveillance in prevention and solving crimes. #IGF11-USA
Government use of data is acceptable when there is an understanding about privacy and intent. -Judith Hellerstein
#IGF11-USA Google held back facial-recognition tech to protect privacy – many corporations concerned. -Chris Martin #IGF11-USA
Internet governance discussions revolve around maximizing tech good and minimizing evil. -Martin #IGF11-USA
Power of people vital, and “it’s going to have to be a proactive effort to get and keep that balance.” -Rosa Waldman #IGF11-USA
The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2011 included the following Elon University students and alumni: Jeff Ackermann, Natalie Allison, Ronda Ataalla, Ashley Barnas, Joe Bruno, Kristen Case, Lianna Catino, Nicole Chadwick, Kellye Coleman, Colin Donohue, Steven Ebert, Jeff Flitter, Anna Johnson, Elizabeth Kantlehner, Melissa Kansky, Morgan Little, Brian Meyer, Julie Morse, Derek Scully, Rachel Southmayd, Katy Steele, Jeff Stern, Bethany Swanson and Carolyn VanBrocklin.