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Growing the Internet 1 May 2017

A Peek into the Internet's Future

By Sally WentworthManaging Director, Incoming CEO
Rob Johnson
Rob JohnsonGuest Author

Last week in Geneva I presented the Internet Society’s Internet Futures project during UNCTAD E-Commerce week. Each time I present this project, I gain new perspectives from people who care deeply about the Internet’s future. One government participant wondered what the digital divide will look like in 5-10 years. Will the divide only be about access to technology or will new divides emerge? The implications of censorship, cybersecurity, national economic readiness, and education all loom large in the minds of our community when we think about digital opportunity in the future.

We at the Internet Society are always thinking about what’s next for the Internet and how our community can make a positive impact.

This year marks our 25th anniversary as an advocate for an Internet of opportunity and provides the ideal moment to reflect on what’s ahead. In 2016 we launched a project with our community to imagine the future Internet. We created surveys that generated over 2500 responses representing business, public policy, civil society, Internet development, academic and technology communities from 160 countries. We conducted over 130 expert interviews and held numerous roundtable discussions to dig deeper on these issues.

In September 2017 we will release the culmination of all of this work: the 2017 Global Internet Report on the Internet Futures.

From artificial intelligence to cyber threats to the future of the Internet economy, our community has fascinating observations about what will drive the future of the Internet. Each of these issues is important to the future in its own right, but stakeholders also want to know how these “drivers of change” will impact three fundamental areas:

1. Media, Culture, and Society

2. Personal Freedoms and Rights

3. New and Evolving Digital Divides

It is also clear from our community, that these drivers of change are all inter-related.

For example:

Cyber threats and the role of government: Many interviewees believe that cyber attacks will proliferate in the coming years. Will governments respond to increased threats in ways that undermine free expression and privacy online? At the same time, some participants from developing countries express confidence that their governments want to do the right thing but lack the capacity or understanding to do so. They feel that this could have huge implications for the future.

Artificial Intelligence, IoT and Society: As Artificial Intelligence and IoT play an increasing role in the global economy, people wonder if society is ready to deal with the very real and important implications of automation-led change. Will these new technologies empower and liberate working people or will they result in greater inequalities both within and among societies? (Read our new policy paper on this topic.)

Future of the Marketplace and Media: The decline of traditional news outlets has, on the one hand, vastly expanded opportunities for bloggers and citizen journalists but this has also enabled online ‘echo chambers’ and fake news. Across the globe, people we spoke to are deeply worried that the resulting lack of trust in the Internet could have serious implications for the legitimacy of real-world occurrences, such as elections or other society-shaping events.

The feedback we’ve received reflects the diversity of the Internet community and reveals common themes and anxieties. Some have expressed great optimism about the future — the sentiment among young people that the Internet is “life” is inspiring. But some have expressed concerns that the future of the Internet is bleak — that society cannot effectively deal with the changes on the horizon.

Above all, it is clear that we cannot take the Internet’s future for granted. There are forces in the world that are moving rapidly in ways that will impact the future of this great technology, both positive and negative.

To date, the Internet has proven resilient to geopolitical and commercial forces. But, is that sustainable? What role should different stakeholders play to ensure that this great technology continues to withstand the kinds of forces we see ahead? Where does the Internet Society fit in?

No project like this can have all the answers. But, by relying on the rich, diverse experience of the Internet Society’s global community, partners, and users we can see a picture emerging. This will help us to identify the steps needed to ensure the Internet remains an instrument for social and economic opportunity. As we work to bring the last billion people online, we want to make sure they don’t become victims of a new divide.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Internet? Visit our Internet Future’s page and let us know what you think. Watch for the 2017 Global Internet Report on the Internet Futures in September.

Together, we can keep the Internet free and open for all citizens of the world.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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