To mark its 25th Anniversary, the Internet Society is beginning a global dialogue on the impact of the Internet on societies. So far, we have held discussions at Chatham House in London, and opened up the dialogue in a recent public forum with more than 100 participants from 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Europe & Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia.
The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for advancing social and cultural understanding. The online environment empowers individuals to connect, speak, innovate, share, be heard, and organize. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness that the Internet’s promise as a force for good could be fundamentally undermined, if current technical and social trends – things like fake news, online harassment, radicalization and other socially objectionable behaviors – continue.
The world order is in transition. We currently live in an environment of uncertainty – some of this uncertainty is Internet specific and, other affects society at large. At this point, it is difficult for us to understand how far the Internet reflects wider societal anxieties, and how far it causes those phenomena. But for some, all these issues are part of a bigger trend steadily leading towards a societal collapse, where the Internet plays a fundamental role.
People, companies, governments and institutions all feel the depth of the change brought by the Internet. The intensity and scope of this change has triggered different types of utopian and dystopian perceptions. For instance, does the use of the Internet increase the risk of isolation, alienation and withdrawal from society or does it increase sociability, civil and political engagement in all cultures?
These are some of the very hard questions we are faced with that will require some even harder answers. And, they will only increase in the future. As the boundaries between the offline and the online world get increasingly blurred, it will become important, if not unavoidable, to take some action. Governments are currently responding to this transformation by calling for increased Internet regulation. At the same time, companies are beginning to realize their share of responsibility and they are in the process of adjusting their secret algorithms to deal with many societal challenges, be they fake news or extremism. Caught between these two actors (governments and companies), individuals can feel disregarded and disempowered. All this indicates that a serious conversation amongst all affected parties is in order.
The Internet Society has taken up the challenge. In May, it collaborated with the international affairs think-tank, Chatham House, to start a true and unbiased conversation about the impact of the Internet on societies. The aim was to depart from the sensationalism often experienced in the media and provide an objective perspective from a wide range of actors. The conversation focused on how the Internet affects social norms and societies at large. A diverse set of participants, from the fields of technology, business, and government, identified that the issues facing the role of the Internet in societies circle around trust, access and digital literacy, the role of the Internet as an engine for economic growth, the evolving security challenge, and regulation. What sort of values we, as a global community, want the Internet to embody, while respecting cultural, political and geographic diversity, was one of the main questions raised by all participants.
In approaching this question, it became clear that, as a first step, it is users and the role they can play where focus should be placed. We seem to have forgotten users along the way. It is those individuals, those people, who need to be placed front and center as the Internet continues to evolve. Individual users must feel empowered to voice their concerns and take action.
Users need to be part of the conversation. To this end, the Internet Society committed to continuing the dialogue that started in May and in June hosted a Community Forum with its wide membership of Internet users. During the ninety minute long discussion, ISOC’s membership was clear that we are at a cross-roads, where the Internet could either lose its original identity and value, or be strengthened as a medium that can change people’s lives and lead to economic growth.
We all must take note of this and ensure that this conversation – no matter how difficult it is – does not end. And, we must also ensure that our discussions introduce a way forward and involve people outside of the Internet community. This is what we sought to do with our two events and we are committed to continue doing so.
The preliminary steps forward from this conversation can be found in A Brave New World: How the Internet Affects Societies.
In 2016, the Internet Society launched a project to take stock of the key forces of change that could impact the future of the Internet. We engaged with a broad community of Members, Chapters, experts and partners. Read the full report in September.
Join the discussion. Mark your calendar for a special edition of InterCommunity 2017, our global membership meeting. In celebration of our 25th anniversary, we will take time to look back, to celebrate with our community and to look ahead to the future.