Pew Survey Underscores Concerns Over An Open Internet And Government Surveillance

The good news, if you can call it that, is that after polling hundreds of technology experts, the Pew Research Internet Project found that they don’t believe that cybercrime or hacking are the chief problems facing the Internet by 2025. Unfortunately, that’s because they believe there are other problems that will be worse. Those problems center around government and business interference with access and security as well as the curious issue of having too much information available.

To be clear, this isn’t a study per se; Pew polled thousands of individuals in the tech field that it identified as experts with the following prompt:

By 2025, will there be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online compared with the way globally networked people can operate online today?

After answering yes (35%) or no (65%), they were asked to elaborate on their viewpoint, which Pew boiled down into a few themes.

Government influence over the Internet is varied. In some countries, access is blocked or heavily censored, and of course the Snowden leaks have revealed that governments including our own here in the U.S. are spying on its citizens and prying data from the hands of Internet companies.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden (credit: The Guardian)

Further down that path, they predict a backlash; users will develop a distrust of governments and businesses over the constant threat of surveillance, and that could seriously limit sharing and access to information as individuals hold back out of fear.

They’re also quite concerned about the “commercial pressures” that the Internet faces. A large part of that is the hot-button net neutrality issue. Getting away from the details of net neutrality for a moment, in a larger sense it can be terribly problematic when the middle men of the Internet have too much control over the flow of data. Those commercial pressures also include the influence of patent trolls and enforcement of copyright protections that could hamper the exchange of information.

Tom Wheeler
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, embroiled in the net neutrality issue

While the above are problems that arise from the influence of actors with agendas on the Internet, there’s a final issue the polled experts are concerned about that is simply an issue with the nature of the Internet beast. There’s so much information available that it can be difficult to drill down to what you really need. Pew neatly summarizes the problem experts described by saying, “Algorithm-based filtering systems inspired by attempts to cope with large amounts of information can have as many negative consequences for the Internet as positives, especially when most companies providing filtering services have economic incentives to present information in a particular way.”

We should note here that many while the above represent the polled experts’ fears, many were also optimistic about the future of the Internet. These are problems that we are currently facing, but they’re not necessarily deterministic--many of these experts see them as problems that can possibly be overcome.

Hopefully they’re right.