Personal Computing: Countering Threats to the Internet

Personal-Computing-Logo color web jan14By Reid Goldsborough

Anticipating the future can be a way of helping to ensure a better one.

This is the thinking behind long-term planning, and it's behind a recent report by the Pew Research Center titled "Digital Life in 2025: Net Threats."

The Pew Research Center (www.pewresearch.org) is a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that does public opinion polling, demographic research, and media content analysis. It sees its mission as illuminating trends shaping the U.S. and the world rather than taking explicit policy positions.

The research center is part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a philanthropic organization created in 1948 by the adult children of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew. "Net Threats" is the latest report in Pew's Digital Life in 2025 series.

The 1,400 experts canvassed by Pew fear four main threats to the Internet:

1. Actions by countries to maintain security and political control will lead to more censorship of Internet information, including blocking, filtering, and segmentation.

2. Trust in the Internet will evaporate because of increasing revelations about government and corporate surveillance.

3. Commercial pressures affecting Internet architecture and the flow of information will compromise the open nature of online life.

4. Efforts to fix the problem of information overload will become excessive and thwart Internet content sharing.

Some of these threats affect Internet users worldwide, while others primarily affect users in other countries. The censorship of Internet information is largely an issue elsewhere.

Countries such as China, Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt block their citizens from having access to Internet information perceived as a threat to the regime in power. Experts fear that this will increase.

On the positive side, the Arab Spring of late 2010 and early 2011 showed how the Internet can aid democracy. Autocratic leaders were forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with the Internet playing a vital role in organizing opposition.

In this country, there's great concern among experts and ordinary users alike about government and corporate efforts to tap into the information people share on the Internet. People worry about the surveillance of email and phone records by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to protect against terrorism as well as the mining of postings by companies such as Facebook and Google to maximize their advertising revenue.

On the positive side, new laws and regulations may prevent the most flagrant privacy abuses. Already in Europe the "right to be forgotten" on Google and other search sites is beginning to become established as law.

The commercialization of the Internet, particularly charging money for what used to be free, has been a worry of people since the 1990s, and it continues today. One pressing concern now is the erosion of "net neutrality."

This is the principle that Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon should treat all Internet data equally rather than charge content providers such as Netflix and Disney more for allowing content provider data to flow over service provider pipelines. When service providers also provide content, they can give their content advantageous treatment, which can compromise competition and consumer choice.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in April announced proposed new rules that would erode net neutrality, which generated a fury of criticism from content providers and consumers.

On the positive side, so many people object to the end of net neutrality and the erection of "walled gardens" of content that it's unlikely that it will become a long-term reality.

Dealing with information overload is also a longstanding Internet challenge. One concern is that the filtering systems that companies provide to help consumers better manage the information flowing to them will restrict access to only information benefitting those companies. A related concern is Internet users being able to continue to find relevant, noncommercial scientific and medical information.

One industry insider felt that people will need to use "personal information trainers" to help them find the information they're looking for on the Internet.

On the positive side, others felt that Internet users would be able to continue using their own search strategies to find what they wanted as well as getting exposed to new ideas. Continuing improvements in search engine algorithms and analytics should help.

Vint Cerf, Google vice president who's recognized as one of the "fathers of the Internet," is quoted in the Pew report as saying, "AI [Artificial Intelligence] and natural language processing may well make the Internet far more useful than it is today."

About the only thing we know with certainty about all this is that change will come.

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