The Age of Internet - Promise or Problem?

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Sep 22, 2016
by Jessica Franzetti
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The Age of Internet - Promise or Problem?

What does the future hold for internet innovation and the power of big data? Participants pose for a picture outside of Château Klingenthal

The Internet of Things likely resembles a futuristic sci-fi film produced decades ago. While computers are not yet taking over society like some of these films depict, they are increasingly making decisions that once belonged solely to humans.

The age of the internet and its associated technological innovations is ushering humans into uncharted waters. Yet, it would be naïve to think that this is the only time throughout history where innovative technology has altered societies and states. Consider the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century or the advent of railway in the nineteenth. Humans both anticipated and underestimated the impact that these innovations would have on both daily life and the role of the state.

The key distinction between these technological revolutions, is that while they too allowed for a greater connectedness and dissemination of knowledge, they relied on humans, and effectively could not make decisions. But today, there is a growing emergence and use of algorithms on sites like Facebook or even in determining prison sentencing, cars that are self-driving and big data that can produce incredible predictions. 

So, what are the benefits as well as inherent dangers in these vast sources of data as well as increasingly advanced technologies? The session, Remaking the State: The Digital Revolution Now and to Come, sought to address these questions. Held outside Strasbourg, France at Château Klingenthal from September 9-12, 2016, twenty participants from six continents whose expertise included cyber security, journalism, diplomacy, and academia gathered to consider the impact that internet has already had as well as what the future may hold. 

The program’s size allowed for lengthy group discussions as well as a number of thought experiments during the course of the session. An overarching theme of the session centered on whether the vastness of the internet and growing big data would ultimately be positive or instead lead to greater security threats and potential downfalls. 

Regardless of potential, it is equally important to recognize the reality of our time that due to incredible quantities of data, “states now have within their grasp an enormous increase in power over their citizens,” noted John Lotherington, the session’s program director. 

However, there are also ways in which citizens are empowered as the interconnectedness of the internet has allowed people separated by geographic boundaries, to connect. Lotherington explains, “The internet has allowed a lot of people to escape their local communities and power systems. Groups that are minorities in their own countries are able to link into larger communities around the world.”

A powerful example of this, has been reflected in the work of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, “Its next session is about to begin in Thailand, and that Forum has drawn on Internet and social media networks which have been an extraordinary liberation for LGBT people who may be persecuted within their local communities or live in states that have severe laws against them. The internet provides an opportunity for making connections and feeling part of a community that simply didn’t exist before,” says Lotherington. 

Conversely, building online communities can also lead to a compartmentalizing of the internet, which has led to greater polarization in politics and public discourse, as people build enclaves that reinforce their own set of views.  

“If you didn’t have the internet, you might, for example, talk to your neighbors more and they might have a different opinion on an issue. Now, you can sit in your own room, walled off from the world, and just communicate online with people who think exactly like you, reinforcing your view of the world,” says Charles Ehrlich, who was also a program director at the session.  

There is also an emergence of new challenges from the internet’s ability to connect to people around the world – the dark web, the use of the internet by traffickers or international terrorist groups. With these concerns comes a new type of security - that of cybersecurity and the threat that cybercrime can present. 

It also highlights concerns regarding states’ power over its citizens, which fuels a more recent debate of privacy versus safety, as states cite terrorism for the need to amass enormous quantities of data. Lotherington says, “So this is perhaps really the core of it, that data can be taken by the state and used as a form of control or very interestingly, it can be used to predict behavior.”

Further discussion concerned whether the internet is a new phenomenon requiring regulation, as such, or rather a new tool for human interaction that merely facilitates what people do anyway.  In the latter sense, existing laws might apply, simply updated to account for new technologies.  However, rapid technological progress means that these developments move faster than politicians can legislate, or even understand the technology in the first place.  Thus participants feared heavy-handed legislation that would stifle progress and make the internet a tool for increased state control.

As the session came to a close, participants considered interrelated topics that will be crucial to discuss as the internet continues to evolve and questions of data and its power continue to loom. Two of the many potential issues, include, cybercrime on the state level as well as the power of prediction, as amassed data may allow for increased profiling capabilities.  

"These new technological capabilities will present complex challenges for the international community across public and private sectors.  A key test for global governance and the rule of law in the 21st century will be whether the internet of the future is compatible with human security, without inhibiting progress and innovation," said Ehrlich.


For more information on the September session, visit: http://www.salzburgglobal.org/calendar/2010-2019/2016/fellow-60.html