Living in Times of Digital Uncertainty: Are Control and Trust Compatible? Thumbnail
Building Trust 1 June 2018

Living in Times of Digital Uncertainty: Are Control and Trust Compatible?

By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor

The Cambridge Analytica data misuse is the most recent high-profile incident to impact Internet trust. Trust – or the lack thereof – is the term used to describe much of the current state of the Internet. For years now, we have been hearing about a decline in user trust because of fears of surveillance, cybercrime, data breaches, crack downs on speech, or misuse of their data.

However, updated data from a recently released edition of CIGI’s annual survey on Trust seems to shatter commonly-held views on the state of trust and raise some novel questions. While the survey covers a wide range of issues from privacy to e-commerce and online habits, one particular result is rather striking:

Three quarters of respondents (73%) said that they agree with the statement “overall, I trust the Internet.” Last year only 56% said that. The trust was highest in China (91%) and India (90%).

This result appears to contradict the assumption that overall trust in the Internet is diminishing.

If, indeed, there is an overall increase in trust, then the first question we should ask is: what type of trust are we talking about?

  • Are we referring to trust with regard to the misuse of people’s data?
  • Are we now talking about trust relative to a predictable environment where users are provided with services that are known and easy-to-use, but in exchange for their privacy and rights to free speech?

Or, are we talking about something entirely different, but potentially more dangerous: are we at a stage where Internet trust is equated with control?

Judging only from the results of the survey, it might look like people in China and India might actually think so. At the same time, these countries are known to have the most sophisticated digital censorship apparatus (China), and the record number of Internet shutdowns last year (India). What does this tell us? 

At face value, one might wonder if some people are craving a more controlled Internet environment.

We live in times of uncertainty, where it is often difficult to know who manages our data, for what purpose and to what end. ISOC’s 2017 Global Internet Report highlights people’s hopes for the future of the Internet, but also growing fears regarding uncontrolled expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the growing role of Internet platforms in our lives, and the risks of being victims of hacks or cyberattacks. The CIGI survey itself highlights a 52% increase in privacy concerns by users, with a growing distrust targeted at social media platforms and other Internet companies. On a smaller scale than CIGI, a regional Internet Society survey from 2017 covering APAC shows that users in the region continue to be very concerned about privacy and cybercrime.

But, are we entering a time where we have to choose between government control or corporate lock in, where a small group of companies control increasingly larger parts of our digital lives? Do we, at the end of the day, have to choose between being shut down or locked down? 

There are real challenges to solve in terms of online content and behavior, including misinformation, cybercrime, hate speech, and online harassment. It will take time and effort to solve them. But restrictions on speech, invasions of privacy or surveillance are neither satisfactory nor sustainable solutions – no matter if performed by governments or private actors.

The willingness for people to have more control on their digital lives is legitimate in a hyper connected world. Control is not necessarily incompatible with trust, but this control should be closer to the users and the edges of the network.

For example, parents having a close say in content filters for their children’s online use can be effective. At the network level, another example is the Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS), which includes the recommendation that networks use anti-spoofing tools to mitigate the threat of botnets operating from devices on their network.

On the other side, experience shows that forms of control happening far away from the edges tend to be ineffective (e.g. people circumventing national-level blocking of content) and generate collateral damages (e.g. economic losses due to Internet shutdowns).

Solving hard problems through collaboration and without resorting to restrictions is without a doubt the long and hard way, but it’s the only way to get to sustainable trust. Highly-controlled environments may give a sense of comfort, but long term we need to find solutions that keep an Internet that is open, secure, and global.

What do you think about these results and how do you read them?

*CIGI and Ipsos, with support from the Internet Society, conducted the survey in 25 economies (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States) with 25,262 Internet users. This is CIGI’s 4th Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust. It covers a range of issues including: Internet trust, privacy, e-commerce, and online habits.

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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