Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project
is out with a report today based on a survey of leaders in information technology. Earlier, Pew asked experts
what digital life would look like in 2025; today’s update focuses on potential threats to our information network
The concerns are broken down into four categories:
1) Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.
2) Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.
3) Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
4) Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.
The first two categories have broad implications for journalists — for example, their safety, and how they practice their craft. Journalists will simultaneously have to work to push back against government and commercial control creep while learning how to resist surveillance, as will everyone else.
The second two categories, however, speak more directly and immediately to the world of digital publishing. For example, as those commercial pressures mount, it will become increasingly important to make sure that news and information providers understand and have access to the heavy-duty tools of the Internet, so that rapidly consolidating power and money do not overwhelm them:
Glenn Edens, director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, said, “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.”
The fluidity of content was also a major concern for some, who look forward to considering access a right, and believe that sharing is the antidote to a fractured Internet:
Clark Sept, co-founder and principal of Business Place Strategies Inc., wrote, “Online content access and sharing will be even better and easier by way of personal digital rights access. Sharing freely will be recognized as having greater long-term economic value than strictly limited controls over ‘intellectual property.’”
Or, more briefly:
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, responded, “People are going to get what they want, and they want to share content.”
If the risk of an information ecosystem in which content is produced and controlled by a few economically powerful players isn’t clear, Doc Searls explains:
“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. For this they’ll run two-sided markets: on the supply side doing deals with “content providers” such as Hollywood and big publishers, and on the demand side by intermediating the sale of that content. 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.”
But there’s a flip side to all that sharing and fluid content, says Mike Roberts, former ICANN leader:
“God knows what will happen to the poor authors. John Perry Barlow says ‘information wants to be free,’ which pursued to the ultimate, pauperizes the authors and diminishes society thereby. There has been recent active discussion of this question on the ICANN former director list.”
Despite these looming systemic threats, many respondents were concerned about a challenge we already face everyday — how to efficiently locate the information that we want, and how to guarantee that it will continue to be served to us. Writes Michael Starks, an information science professional:
“The challenge will be in separating the wheat from the chaff. Will people who can create, edit, judge, find and curate content for others become valued for those skills? If so — and if that value is reflected in the salaries those people receive — then highly networked populations will have greater access to better content as well as more content.”
According to the report’s authors, complaints about the sorting process of the future included but were not limited to: “algorithms often categorize people the wrong way and do not suit their needs; they do not change as people change; search algorithms are being written mostly by corporations with financial interests that could sway the ways in which they are being written; search algorithms can be gamed by certain outside interests to sway searches to their advantage.” Susan Etlinger of the Altimeter Group added additional concerns:
“With regard to content, the biggest technical challenge will continue to be filter failure; algorithms today just cannot keep up with the number and type of signals that provisionally predict what a person will want at a certain point in time. There are so many barriers: multiple devices, offline attribution and of course simple human changeability. We will continue to see a push and pull with regard to privacy. People will continue to adapt, but their expectations for control and relevance will also increase.”
A few survey respondents went so far as to imagine the kinds of systems they believe might, or at least should, come into place to help us deal with the deluge of data. Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, expressed concerns over consolidated control of the tools we use to find information:
“Currently, approximately 70% of Internet users in the U.S. and 90% in Europe obtain information by going through the search services of one company. This needs to change. There should be many information sources, more distributed, and with less concentration of control. So, I am hoping for positive change. We need many more small and mid-size firms that are stable and enduring. The current model is to find an innovation with monetizing potential, incorporate, demonstrate proof of concept, sell to an Internet giant, and then walk away. This will not end well.”
What could one type of small firm helping redistribute control of search and distribution?
Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, predicted, “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. Reference librarians played this role when we went to the information repository called a library. As the volume of information continues to grow exponentially, personal information trainers will help us with the much more daunting task of creating a virtual dashboard to access the information of value to us, much of which we did not know was out there.”
Ultimately, writers Robert Cannon, U.S. Internet law expert, we are past “the initial utopian introduction that greets the technology with claims of world peace,” and past the era of competition. “In the information era,” he writes “we have moved into the era of consolidation.” But there may yet be hope:
“Unlike other cycles where the era of consolidation also raised barriers to entry, in the modern information era, the barriers to entry still remain low. But this can change as conduit becomes entangled with content or service. […] This is the core concern of the Net neutrality debate: Will the Internet of the future look like the radio market or the telegraph market after consolidation, with few players controlling content — or will it continue to look like the never-ending marketplace of ideas?”