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Tech experts discuss the greatest threats to Internet freedom

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Oh how the Internet has grown. What was once a small village of interconnected networks has grown into a booming digital metropolis with billions of users. Like any prominent place, the Internet is continuously being shaped, for better or worse, by institutional forces.

To get a better sense for where this is all leading, the Pew Research Center asked thousands of Internet experts their thoughts on what the Internet will be like in 2025. Pew published a report titled “Net Threats,” detailing its findings, on Thursday.

The experts’ responses were generally optimistic; 65 percent of the 1,400 experts who responded said there would not be “significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online.”     

Whether they answered with optimism or pessimism, the experts were asked to elaborate on potential risks to Internet freedom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experts cited government censorship and surveillance, as well as commercialization, as the greatest threats to the Internet we’ve come to know and love.

“Because of governance issues (and the international implications of the NSA reveals), data sharing will get geographically fragmented in challenging ways,” said Microsoft research scientist danah boyd, one of the respondents quoted in the Pew report. “The next few years are going to be about control.”

boyd is referring to the past 13 months of revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast digital surveillance capabilities, as revealed through documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

On the topic of censorship, Pew notes that the Internet has shown it has the power to take down governments, as displayed during the Arab Spring. This has caused dictatorial regimes to react by working to censor Internet access.

But as one of Pew’s experts points out, censorship is not a trend that’s limited to just China and Syria.  

“Governments worldwide are looking for more power over the Net, especially within their own countries,” said Dave Burstein, editor of Fast Net News. “Britain, for example, has just determined that ISPs block sites the government considers ‘terrorist’ or otherwise dangerous.”

Indeed, a recent report found that British ISP filters are blocking one-fifth of the 100,000 of the country’s most popular webpages, including political blogs and medical information sites.

As for commercialization, the last of the three threats to Internet freedom detailed by the Pew experts, the respondents highlighted debates about net neutrality and copyright law as key battlegrounds.

It certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Internet. Google executive Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers, responded to Pew with a bit more optimism.

“Social norms will change to deal with potential harms in online social interactions,” he said. “The Internet will become far more accessible than it is today.”

Photo by Pierre-Selim/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)