Survey Says the Digerati Are Hopeful About Technology and the Future of Freedom
BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, July 5 2012
A new Pew Research Center study released Thursday finds that among some of the leading thinkers and doers at the intersection of the Internet, media and technology, the outlook is bright for Internet freedom.
Pew surveyed more than a thousand experts in conjunction with the Elon University School of Communications in a project called "Imagining the Internet."
That sentiment was buoyed by a vote Thursday by the United Nations Human Rights Council to endorse a resolution to uphold the principle of free expression and information on the Internet.
It's unclear how much the resolution means given that China, the world's most densely populated country, is just one of several where citizens are under constant online surveillance and have limited access to the outside Internet. Nevertheless, it indicates that there are a lot of people out there who believe that the Internet should be maintained as a force for good.
The Pew and Elon University survey asked participants the following question:
"In 2020, technology firms with their headquarters in democratic countries will be expected to abide by a set of norms -- for instance, the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenge by their governments. In this world, for instance, a Western telecommunications firm would not be able to selectively monitor or block the Internet activity of protestors at the behest of an authoritarian government without significant penalties in other markets."
Some 51 percent of respondents to the survey agreed with that statement. Meanwhile, 39 percent of respondents agreed with an opposite statement, which posited that by 2020 "technology firms headquartered in democratic countries will have taken steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents."
Pew and Elon explain that their survey can't be extrapolated to a broader population because of its methodology, but it's interesting reading nevertheless if only because reading the text is like being a fly on the wall at a dinner party with some of most influential web workers and thinkers.
For example, Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and founder and president of Sociate, strikes a dispirited tone. He said that he's disappointed with the Obama administration's record on civil liberties, and the lack of an effort to roll back the warrantless wiretap regime established under the presidency of President Bush.
"I think few organizations will resist the pull to collaborate with governments," he told the surveyors.
But others, like Mary Hodder, founder of Dabble Wellness and chair of the Personal Data Consortium, appear a little more optimistic, noting that the future, to some extent, is in technologists' hands.
"The key will be to design communication tech that is not client/server or cow/calf, but instead dispersed and unable to be controlled," she told the researchers. "If we do that, then we have a chance at getting a scenario that is more like number one."
"The study is a 'snapshot' capture of people's opinions today about what might take place tomorrow knowing what is known now," said Janna Anderson, an associate professor at Elon University, in an e-mail. "This helps illuminate issues and concerns and raises the need to address them. It is important to know the hopes and fears, the opportunities and challenges that a widely distributed group of digital citizens see looming in our future. This will help inform policymakers. Just asking people to stop and think about these big questions makes a difference in how we imagine our future and how we build it."
There's a lot of evidence that there's a lot of stopping and thinking going on right now, a lot of creativity going into building new services, and considerations made about how those services might foster freedom of expression online.
Twitter, for example, recently came out with a global transparency report similar to the ones that Google periodically releases to disclose requests for user information by governments. Given that some of Twitter's legal department came from Google, the move isn't surprising.
Earlier this year, Twitter also announced that when governments ask it to block content, their response will be to block the content within that country, and not to users in the rest of the world. It will also let users in the country requesting censorship know that the content has been removed.
While hardware makers shipping equipment overseas might not have these options, Internet freedom advocates have applauded such an approach as an appropriate beginning to a complex and interconnected future.