New Elon-Pew study looks at threats to the future of the Internet

Imagining the Internet and Pew Research surveyed world technology experts about the challenges to the Internet's future development between now and 2025.

Government surveillance and actions to control information in the name of security, and expanding commercial influences are among the challenges identified in a new report issued by the Pew Research Center and the Imagining the Internet Center, an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications.

These experts said attention must be paid to evolving threats in order to retain civil liberties online. David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, summed up his point of view by saying, “The future challenge: The Internet gets owned and packaged as a set of content and we treat it like cable TV. The future opportunity: Free culture becomes ever more lively, and people are enjoying content that they recognize was created by people like them.”

This report, the third in a series titled “Digital Life 2025,” is a compilation of opinions and predictions shared by more than 1,400 experts about tech changes that lie ahead and their likely impact on daily life.

While the two previous reports looked at the remarkable technological advancements that are rapidly connecting billions of people and devices around the world, the focus of this report is on the battles now underway to preserve online access and sharing of information. Among the predicted threats by the experts are: more crackdowns by nation-states on citizens’ online freedoms; more intense surveillance and a loss of trust in online culture; commercial pressures that may stifle sharing, creativity, and opportunity—including assaults on Net neutrality principles; and the downsides of the automated “personalization” of information-seeking.

“While the majority of the survey respondents remain optimistic about the Internet’s long-term future, they also have concerns about the turf wars emerging as these technologies mature,” said Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the report. “Many experts worry that, if ignored, these problems could change the fundamental nature of this crucial information system.”

Threat one: The broad global trend toward more regulation of the Internet by nation-states was one of four major concerns the researchers identified. Governments that block traffic or impose filters in the name of security and political control were perceived as a significant threat. Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey are examples of nations that have blocked Internet access to control access to information and China is known for its “Great Firewall,” seen as Internet censorship by many.

Lyman Chapin, co-founder and principal of Interisle Consulting Group, wrote, “Popular access to information is the biggest threat to the maintenance of political tyranny, and governments of every stripe will therefore continue to search for economic, technical, and administrative mechanisms of Internet content and access control.”

Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote, “While surveillance is the most often discussed threat these days, censorship still poses a major threat to communications worldwide. More than one-third of those who access the Internet are accessing a censored version of it and that number continues to grow.”

Threat two: Some survey participants said a security backlash and lack of trust is arising from Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of email and phone call records. There was also concern about overreaching government policies that might arise in reaction to online theft of consumer data. Jari Arkko, Internet expert for Ericsson and chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force, wrote, “Excessive surveillance, data gathering and privacy violations can endanger the will of the world’s citizens to employ global innovations.”

Internet Society leader Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official, wrote, “Surveillance… at the minimum chills communication and at the maximum facilitates industrial espionage, and it does not have very much to do with security.”

Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, wrote, “There are too many institutional players interested in restricting, controlling, and directing ‘ordinary’ people’s ability to make, access and share knowledge and creative works online—intellectual property rights holders, law enforcement and security agencies, religious and cultural censors, political movements and parties, etc.”

Threat three: Many of the experts pointed to the pressures businesses are under to monetize Internet activities as a major threat. “Some warn that the constantly expanding commercialization of the Internet is the largest challenge,” said Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center and co-author of the report. “It has many facets. The two most often identified by participants in our study are the ongoing threats to Network neutrality and the potential negative impacts of intellectual property and patent regulation on creativity, innovation and sharing.”

Concerns over commercial influences altering the online environment were led by some of the architects of the Internet. David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wrote, “Commercialization of the experience may come to bound or limit the expectation that many people have of what the Internet is for.” And Glenn Edens, director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, wrote, “Network operators’ desire to monetize their assets to the detriment of progress represents the biggest potential problem. Enabling content creators to easily and directly reach audiences, better search tools, better promotion mechanisms and curation tools—continuing to dismantle the ‘middle men’ is key.”

Network neutrality is generally expressed as the idea that the best public network should be operated in such a way as to treat all senders and receivers of content as equally as is technologically possible while maintaining information flows well. Corporate goals to serve customers and shareholders can be in conflict with this. Doc Searls of Harvard University warned, “What the carriers actually want—badly—is to move television to the Net, and to define the Net in TV terms: as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable… This by far is the most serious threat to sharing information on the Net, because it undermines and sidelines the Net’s heterogeneous and distributed system for supporting everybody and everything, and biases the whole thing to favor a few vertically-integrated ‘content’ industries.”

Dennis McCann, formerly a senior technical consultant at Cisco and IBM wrote, “If we aren’t ready to make the courts take ownership of the Net and its implications, then a free Internet is history, since the service providers have no interest in the free flow of information.”

Disputes over the future of copyright and intellectual property regulation in the digital age and problems with patent regulation were pointed out as threats to knowledge sharing in the future by a large number of respondents.

Andrew Bridges, a partner and Internet law litigator and policy analyst at Fenwick & West LLP, wrote, “Governments and powerful incumbent-business groups will seek to limit the power of individuals that arises from new technologies and communications platforms, because they fear that power as a threat to established interests… The most significant challenges are the increasing efforts by certain business, political, and government sectors to isolate individuals, to fragment groups, to repress speech and publications, to stifle innovation, and to treat as property all knowledge and information.”

John Mitchell, a self-employed lawyer who focuses on antitrust, copyright, trade associations, and free speech, responded, “The key is to protect ‘the Internet’ as a neutral means of communication and prevent its corporate and governmental capture and balkanization into a number of interconnected intranets. Every person on the planet should be free to communicate with every other person on the planet at any time, from/to anywhere, about anything.”

Threat four: Paradoxically, the explosion of information-sharing online is seen by some experts as a threat to access and sharing. When people seek information online the algorithms designed to help them find what they need limit the results. Such filters have many downsides, including the fact that they may be influenced by business considerations.

Joel Halpern, a distinguished engineer at Ericsson, wrote, “The biggest challenge is likely to be the problem of finding interesting and meaningful content when you want it. While this is particularly important when you are looking for scientific or medical information, it is equally applicable when looking for restaurants, music, or other things that are matters of taste. While big-data analysis has the promise of helping this, there are many limitations and risks (including mismatched incentives) with those tools.”

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, suggested one solution, predicting, “To help people realize their fullest potential, an industry of ‘personal information trainers’—by analogy to personal trainers for fitness—will form to help people find and access information that is interesting and useful for them.”

About the report:

The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It is the third report generated out of the results of Web-based questions fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. For fuller details on methodology, please read the full report.

Here are some of the key respondents in this report:

Miguel Alcaine, International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America; Francois-Dominique Armingaud, formerly a computer engineer for IBM now teaching security; danah boyd, a social scientist for Microsoft; Stowe Boyd, lead at GigaOM Research; Bob Briscoe, chief researcher for British Telecom; Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert; Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google; David Clark, senior scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Glenn Edens, research scientist at PARC and IETF area chair; Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International; Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst with the Altimeter Group; Bob Frankston, Internet pioneer and technology innovator; Seth Finkelstein, a programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner; Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft; Joel Halpern a distinguished engineer at Ericsson; Jim Hendler, Semantic Web scientist and professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center at the City University of New York; John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times; Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition; Raymond Plzak, former CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, now a member of the board of ICANN; Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Famer and longtime leader with ICANN; Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford; Doc Searls, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center; Hal Varian, chief economist for Google; and David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center.

Here is a selection of other institutions at which respondents work or have affiliations:

Yahoo; Intel; IBM; Hewlett-Packard; Nokia; Amazon; Netflix; Verizon; PayPal; BBN; Comcast; U.S. Congress; EFF; W3C; The Web Foundation; PIRG: NASA; Association of Internet Researchers; Bloomberg News; World Future Society; ACM; the Aspen Institute; Magid; GigaOm; the Markle Foundation; The Altimeter Group;; key offices of U.S. and European Union governments; the Internet Engineering Task Force; the Internet Hall of Fame; ARIN; Nominet; Oxford Internet Institute; Princeton, Yale, Brown, Georgetown, Carnegie-Mellon, Duke, Purdue, Florida State and Columbia universities; the universities of Pennsylvania, California-Berkeley, Southern California, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Kentucky, Maryland, Kansas, Texas-Austin, Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Boston College.

Complete sets of credited and anonymous responses to this question can be found on the Imagining the Internet site: