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Area of Impact: Personal Freedoms and Rights

For many, the growth and ubiquity of the Internet is a sign of progress and innovation.  For others, however, it may reach a tipping point in the future where the risks to society and freedoms grow faster than the benefits.   While the impact on personal freedoms and human rights in a future that is ever more connected is far from clear, it is likely that challenges related to surveillance and the loss of privacy and control over ones data will become more pressing.   

Many participants fear that freedoms and rights will become more fragile and under threat in a hyperconnected world.  Some believe that efforts to curtail invasive means of collecting and sharing data may make little headway, particularly with technology advances that will enable more efficient and widespread data collection and analysis.  Will the Internet, as one participant suggested, become a “surveillance environment” by both governments and business?

The matter of decision-making and human agency is central to the notion of personal freedoms and human rights.   In a future that will be shaped by ever more powerful Internet-enabled data analytics and artificial intelligence, one of the most pressing questions for many commenters is to what degree decision-making may be taken away from individuals. This sense of growing lack of control over ones data and the implications it has for personal autonomy (and therefore freedoms) is a significant concern for the future.

One participant cautioned that views in the future may “flip” from euphoria about the Internet as a tool for liberation and democracy, to a perception that the Internet is a tool for surveillance, profiling, and control.  At some point it is conceivable that users, organizations, or societies may choose to step back from the Internet.  This is compounded, as one participant suggested, by the view that the Internet may “[become] an authority channel rather than something that delivers benefits to the larger public.”

At the same time, however, others see the future Internet growing in its value as a fundamental enabler of free expression, organization, and positive social empowerment.  Some argue that government, business, and society will recognize that the Internet will be of little economic and social value if freedoms and rights are infringed and trust is lost, leading to steps that will enhance trust and the protection of freedom and rights.  Others argue that even if the Internet becomes less free, technical tools and other means will be developed to circumvent measures put in place to restrict freedom.

Some participants, however, a fear that there is a trend towards overall weakening of values and human rights globally.  One participant suggested that “Liberal values are weakening around the world [which] doesn’t bode well for the Internet.”  Quoting television show Game of Thrones, they went on to suggest that for personal freedoms and human rights “winter is coming.”

Key Challenges and Uncertainties Raised by our Community

  • Use of Internet to curtail freedom, rather than promote it (especially by government).
  • Implications of more personal data in the hands of companies and governments.
  • Censorship (especially as more media and political speech is moving on line).
  • On-line persecution and persecution in the off-line world for on-line behavior.
  • Surveillance, pervasive monitoring, and government controls on privacy technology (ie. encryption).
  • Impact of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence on freedom and rights.
  • Algorithms and artificial intelligence undermining human agency and decision-making.
  • The potential inability to “opt out” of an “always on” world.
  • Global weakening of liberal values and human rights.
  • Potential for a tipping point when the risks to society and freedoms are perceived as growing faster than the benefits.

Questions from our Community

  • To what extent could or will the Internet be used as a tool to influence and control society rather than promote freedom and human rights?
  • Will people have a choice in whether and how to utilize the Internet or will it be unavoidably pervasive?  Will there be a meaningful opportunity to “unplug or disconnect” from the Internet?
  • Will the risks of the Internet to freedom and rights outweigh the benefits to society and the individual?  If so, what reaction will this evoke?