Here's how to fix the future of the internet, suggests ISOC

From smart but sulky light bulbs to shopping malls that filter potential clients the way we filter spam, ISOC has imagined how the future of the internet might take a wrong turn, and makes recommendations for how we can set things right

Credit: Martyn Williams/IDGNS

What if security software shut some countries out of the global internet, or some people out of their local shopping mall? What if data centers were set up in poorer countries or communities -- but only to serve richer users elsewhere?

The Internet Society (ISOC) has imagined a dystopian multiverse of possible tech futures as a way to provoke discussion about how the internet could take a wrong turn. And it wants you and your company to help keep things on the right path.

ISOC has identified six forces driving change on the internet -- among them artificial intelligence, cyber threats, and interactions between the internet and the physical world -- and is concerned about the effect they will have on personal freedoms and rights, on media and society, and on the digital divides that are forming among different social groups.

After 25 years working toward a global, open, secure internet that benefits all, it's now published 10 recommendations for the next 25 years.

When advocacy groups like ISOC make such recommendations, they're often contained in rambling reports addressed to government bodies, and vaguely worded so as to appease as many interest groups as possible.

There's a little of that in the 120-page 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report, Paths to Our Digital Future -- its top 10 recommendations are actually 36, spread over seven pages -- but there are also concrete examples of what could go wrong, and practical steps that businesses, governments and citizens can take to avoid those errors.

"Our project is completely bottom-up. We did hundreds of interviews. We went to top industry leaders, to government ministers, but also to average users and people who are part of ISOC's individual membership," said Constance Bommelaer, Senior Manager of Public Policy for ISOC.

"Average users and citizens should be thinking about how they can influence the future of the internet," she said.

And not just average users: Developers too.

ISOC's number one recommendation is that human values must drive technical development and use.

"Ethical considerations should be embedded in development," said Bommelaer.

Second on the list is to apply human rights online as well as offline. Concretely, that means giving individuals access to confidential, anonymous and secure communications tools. Developers can help by strengthening encryption, not weakening it, and by making it an integral part of internet technologies.

ISOC notes that its third recommendation, putting users' interest first with respect to their own data, can be achieved through data minimization, among other things. There, users' interests can align with corporate interests, as the enterprise that minimizes the data it collects also minimizes its storage costs and its liability in case of a breach.

For all 10 (or 36) recommendations check out the full report. It's also full of entertaining vignettes describing how future technologies could help, or hinder, the realization of ISOC's goals, including smart spectacles that thwart face tracking, the data blockade of the (fictional) state of Chisnovia, and smart lightbulbs that sulk rather than talk to the smart switch. 

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Peter Sayer

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