Internet experts are more worried about the commercialization of the Internet than they are about surveillance or errant nation-states blocking services, a recent Pew report shows.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said Elon University professor Janna Anderson, who led the survey of 1,400 experts. “But what rings as the biggest warning in the survey is this concern over commercialization.”
Called “Digital Life 2025,” part of the North Carolina university’s “Imagine the Internet” series, the survey included, for the first time in 10 years, a question about the anxieties and concerns experts have about the Internet’s future.
Many participants wrote about nation-states like Iran blocking Twitter or revelations that the NSA has access to Google’s data. But the biggest concern was over commercialization and the relatively unchecked power held by Internet corporations. In light of revelations that Facebook engineers intentionally manipulated some users’ experiences to affect their moods (and found that it worked), the Internet giants themselves are coming under greater scrutiny.
Anderson uses the email inbox as an example of this shift.
“When commercialization started, maybe you wound up having marketers filling your inbox. Now there’s more noise than signal in your personal email — some criminal, some pranksters, everyone searching for the buck,” Anderson said. “Monetization is seen by some as the goose killing the golden egg, as the threat to the Net.”
Many of the most concerned participants in the survey were longtime Internet execs like Glenn Edens, the director of research in networking, security and distributed systems at PARC. An influential pre-Internet tech company, PARC was founded when utopian ideals about personal computing prevailed in the yet-to-be-named Silicon Valley.
“Network operators’ desire to monetize their assets to the detriment of progress represents the biggest potential problem,” Edens wrote. “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.”
Anderson, who has been leading these opinion surveys for 10 years, used to only ask positive questions about the potential for the Internet’s future. This is the first year she asked participants about their concerns. The negative question was the seventh in a broader survey, and she said that the responses to it were powerful.
“We always asked people one open-ended question about hopes and fears, and they’d have mostly hopes,” she said. “Now we’re realizing there’s more recognition of the cons.”
But why is monetization so bad?
“You can’t blame the CEO or the VP of marketing for finding ways to use the Internet to benefit their corporations, but it’s the drive by everyone to do that that is raising concerns,” Anderson said. “But then again, who’s to say who gets to earn a buck on the Internet and who doesn’t?”
From the survey, the four main concerns that experts expressed for the Internet’s future:
- Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation, and balkanization of the Internet.
- Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance, and likely greater surveillance in the future.
- Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.
- Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might overcompensate and actually thwart content sharing.