We cannot take for granted that the internet will remain safe for free expression and open markets.
Beyond academia, few people in 1969 knew of the internet’s existence, and those who did probably never imagined how it would change the world for good and bad. After all, those who witnessed inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s four word telegraph dispatch — “What Hath God Wrought?”— from the U.S. Capitol to Alfred Vail at a railroad station in Baltimore, Md. in 1844 couldn’t have foreseen what was coming.
The telegraph connected far-flung communities, and the internet has done the same during its first 50 years. More than 4.9 billion people — more than half the world’s population — use the network of connected computers. In the past half century, the internet has become a conduit for incredible for good, including wealth creation, and surprising bad, including surveillance and cybercrime.
So we perused the online writings of futurists to garner a glimpse about what the future may hold. We discovered a couple of disquieting trends.
The first is the challenge of regulating internet activities that transcend national borders. The second is assessing the veracity of ideas and data in a world where people have access to more information on mobile phones and other devices than previous generations could tap into even if they visited one of the world’s great libraries. But since not everything on the internet is pure, the responses of governments, individuals and companies to these challenges will fundamentally determine how the internet will evolve in the future.
The internet will be what we make it, but the path forward will wind through mazes of ethical, legal and moral dilemmas. How much privacy should users expect? What rules and protections will exist to deter financial fraud, identity theft, sex trafficking and other abuses? And globally, whose vision of the internet will prevail — the democratic internet we love and hate, or the blunt-force authoritarian alternative that China and other totalitarian governments want?
An outcome in favor of an open, competitive internet built on rules depends on the global commitments to jointly improve online security, provide basic rights and promote economic fairness. And these are not certainties, warn futurists. “How technology affects people and society depends in large part on what values we embed into the design of these technologies, and who controls them,” said Micah Altman, head scientist in the program on information science at MIT Libraries in a recent Pew Research study.
We suspect Altman is right. We should expect revolutionary changes in transportation, manufacturing, communications, education and just about every segment of life, as well as warfare and geopolitics. But across the globe, we have seen troubling examples of personal data being weaponized, the radicalization of pliable young minds, the exploitation of political beliefs and efforts to sow division and mistrust.
We cannot take for granted that the internet will remain safe for free expression and open markets. China is investing billions in artificial intelligence and other next-generation technologies designed to take control of the rules of cyberspace from the market economies of the West, setting the stage for an existential clash between Western style democratization of the internet and the censorship-heavy approach of China.
So why is that problematic? China would impose technical standards that require foreign companies to build their products to meet China’s standards, and government surveillance policies. The logical outcome is that the Chinese government would mandate that data be stored on servers in China and would block the transfer of data outside China except on its terms. And this is made more problematic if China uses facial recognition and other biometrics with no specific laws to protect individual rights. This is a major step away from freedom and toward greater control of content and dissent.
In 50 years, the internet we know could be different in other ways, too. Regulators in Europe and the United States are looking for ways to address mounting concerns about how personal data is being collected and used. Companies like Google and Facebook could face serious legal challenges to their market clout and treatment of personal data, and the trickle-down impact of regulation could alter the vibrancy of the internet and the overall competitive landscape. And, of course, numerous studies show that the digital divide is widening, a chasm that poses questions about whether opportunities for success can and will be open to all.
The internet has come a long way since 1969, the year man walked on the moon, the Beatles made their last public appearance and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 800. This much is certain: The internet — or whatever new networking technologies are on the horizon — will test our resolve to make these technologies work for our betterment, not against it.