Four major trends threaten the future of the Internet and could result in a network restricted by governments, fenced off by corporations and no longer trusted by citizens, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center and published on July 3.
The study, in which Pew canvassed more than 1,400 Internet experts, identified increasing restrictions to the access of online information by world governments and the productization of various aspects of the Internet as potential threats.
In addition, citizens' increasing concern with corporate and government surveillance of their online activities, as well as the erosion of their privacy, were highlighted as threats that could further limit the sharing of information and collaborative efforts online.
While experts understood the desire by nations to filter out some information and by companies to turn Internet connections and data into products, the loss of online freedom comes with significant costs, Lee Rainie, director of the Internet Project for the Pew Research Center, told eWEEK.
"These experts completely understand that the rule of law is necessary and really bad actors ought to be reined in, and that there should be structures and norms and even pieces of the architecture that allows that to happen," Rainie said. "At the same time, they are big proponents of free speech and the free flow of information, with all the messiness and the dark side that entails."
Overall, the survey took a positive note, with two-thirds of respondents saying that, in the next decade, their ability to access information and interact online will not be significantly hindered compared to today, although many said their response did not so much amount to a prediction as a "hope," according to the Pew report.
Actions taken by Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Turkey highlight the first threat—that nations will increasingly filter content or block access to the Internet in the name of national security. Countries could justify such actions with the goal of reining in global cyber-crime and terrorist communications, experts stated.
Yet, other experts took a more optimistic stance. "Historic trends are that as a communications medium matures, the control trumps the innovation," Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, stated in the report. "This time will be different, [but] not without a struggle."
However, consumers will likely react to the increasing surveillance powers of government and corporations with great distrust of the Internet, warned respondents. The revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden will likely result in other nations making their networks less accessible.
The third threat is the increasing productization of data, social networks and people's activities online. The current debate over network neutrality and the restrictions on the exchange of information in the name of copyright and patent protection are examples of this trend, according to the report.
"There are too many institutional players interested in restricting, controlling, and directing 'ordinary' people's ability to make, access, and share knowledge and creative works online," Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, stated in the report.
Finally, the efforts of citizens and businesses to fix the problem of information leakage and the sheer longevity of information on the Internet could result in barriers to information sharing, the interviewed experts stated.
The threats highlight that in the future the Internet will either move toward a more balkanized model, where it becomes commonplace for nations to enforce restrictions on the movement of data within their borders, or toward a more open mode, where legal regimes become more homogenized with fewer restrictions to information.
"This time, the urgency of the answers, and of the threats, never felt greater," Pew's Rainie said. "These things have always been on people's minds … but the environment in the past year has tightened concerns that [the Internet] might be in for some hard times."
The report is the sixth study on the Internet conducted by the Pew Research Center, but the first that focused on the future of the global "network of networks" and the threats to that future.