Government crackdowns, surveillance could destroy the open web, Pew says

The next decade will be a difficult one for the Internet, according to experts canvassed by the Pew Research Center and Elon University.

The Internet as we know it faces several major dangers in the next 10 years, including interference from nation-states, an undermining of trust caused by governmental and corporate surveillance scandals and the corporate world's influence on its basic structure, according to a new report.

The Pew Research Center, in cooperation with Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, studied more than 1,400 responses from researchers and Internet experts to a set of questions designed to forecast threats to the public internet over the next 10 years.

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The most-feared threat, according to the report? Government interference for the sake of political control and security. One former Federal Trade Commission official told the researchers that governmental meddling is "a clear and present threat."

"Already access and sharing are hindered by parochial national laws. The European Union's privacy initiative can be a serious bottleneck, and the Safe Harbor regime is in jeopardy," the official said.

A lack of privacy protection could have a chilling effect on people's willingness to use the Internet, other experts said. The desire to stay out of the NSA's database -- or, for that matter, Google's -- could prompt the creation of an increasingly fragmented network.

"The inconsistent protection of privacy, whether private information is voluntarily provided or not as well as the inconsistent protection against exploitation will continue to be the bane of connected environment," said ICANN board member Raymond Plzak.

Overall, however, many respondents said that the future is still bright. Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's creators and a vice president at Google, told the study's authors that there's a lot to look forward to.

"The Internet will become far more accessible than it is today -- governments and corporations are finally figuring out how important adaptability is," he said.

Altimeter Group tech industry analyst Susan Etlinger concurred, though she also noted that the demand for privacy will continue to be grow in volume.

"People will continue to adapt, but their expectations for control and relevance will also increase," she told the researchers.

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