Protect Internet with wise policy choices

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 5:19 PM

Pew study, “Net Threats,” identifies challenges to an open Web.

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Photo: Val B. Mina • Sacramento Bee/MCT,

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Amid constant warnings about digital dark alleys, Americans are accustomed to hearing of dangers from the Internet. But there’s less talk about the dangers to the Internet. These, however, are significant, according to a new study, “Net Threat,” from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. If left unchecked, these hazards could jeopardize the Internet’s many civic and commercial benefits.

Like the Web itself, the threats are worldwide. But solutions start here at home, especially with more enlightened national security and Internet governance policies.

The Pew study, based on canvassing more than 1,400 tech experts, identifies four major threats to the Internet. The first two concern government and corporate surveillance.

The experts fear that “Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more blocking, filtering, segmentation and Balkanization of the Internet” and that “Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance is the future.”

To some degree, these fears are already being realized. After disclosures from Edward Snowden, the rogue National Security Agency contractor, some governments proposed more official control of the Internet. This could create a so-called “Splinternet,” which would of course contradict the Web’s borderless nature and could erode many benefits of a free global flow of information.

And yet, in response to NSA spying, as well as to keep a lid on internal dissent, countries such as China, with its infamous “Great Firewall,” as well as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and others have blocked sites and in some cases denied access to the Internet itself.

Some governments’ efforts are “old-fashioned tactics being used in the digital era,” like jailing journalists, Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told an editorial writer. Others are more subtle, albeit more damaging. “The trend is toward a more distributed, insidious, hidden censorship, rather than the more blatant blocked page,” added York.

New leaks about NSA surveillance may reinforce some governments’ desire to take the Internet in-house. Last week, the Washington Post reported that “Virtually no foreign government is off-limits for the National Security Agency, which has been authorized to intercept information ‘concerning’ all but four countries, according to top-secret documents.”

This revelation is just the latest evidence that mass surveillance is counterproductive. NSA spying has alienated allies, given repressive regimes more reasons to be paranoid and, ironically, threatens the Internet’s role as a key democratization tool.

The third danger identified in Pew’s study — that “commercial pressures … will endanger the open structure of online life” — has less to do with government and more with the marketplace. And yet policy can make a difference here, too.

For instance, in May the Federal Communications Commission voted to begin a public debate on net neutrality — broadly defined as treating all Web traffic equally. Commercial interests are already speaking loudly, through lobbying. Citizens, too, have shown passion about the issue, suggesting the importance of the Internet to a broad swath of America. Lawmakers have been relatively quiet, however. They should add their voices and let voters know where they stand on net neutrality and on whether the FCC or Congress is best suited to shape policy on the issue.

The fourth threat is a more obscure worry, but one that citizens have the most power to control. Experts expressed concern about the “too much information” problem unleashed by the Net. No, not sharing too many private details on Facebook, but the quest by many Web users for various methods of managing information overload.

One worry is that such search algorithms can be gamed by commercial interests. Another is the tendency for information management to become yet another motive and method to screen out unfamiliar views that challenge one’s preconceived political or social mind-set. This in turn could further fracture an already deeply divided society.

Potential solutions are more individual than institutional, and will partly depend on users being willing to access broad-based sources that prioritize news value, not ideology.

Like all maturing media, the Internet hasn’t lived up to early utopian visions. But it’s become essential to societies worldwide, and wise stewardship is essential to protect its transformative potential.

  • ‘Big policy questions’

    “There are big policy questions yet to be resolved and these keep occurring. This report sounds all the cautionary notes about how people need to be discussing what the Internet is and does, because it just cannot be left to broad, irresistible forces. There are policies to be made and thought through that will definitely shape its future.”

    LEE RAINIE, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

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