Lynn St. Amour, President and CEO of the Internet Society, joins us for the second in our series in which people in business go beyong their comfort zone and venture to make those endlessly caveated “forward-looking statements.” The Internet Society, a nonprofit founded in 1992, currently has 40,000 members; next month, it will be hosting a one-day event in New York, asking the question, “What kind of Internet do you want?” Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
It seems a little funny to talk about the future of the Internet, because the Internet already seems so ridiculously futuristic. Do you ever think about the Internet and just think, “Wait, what?” Are we already living in the future?
I guess I’d have to say yes. The Internet is characterized by constant change, constant surprise–new products, new uses. It’s as though the future is reinvented every day.
Let’s talk a little about the relationship between governments and the Internet. The U.S. government sends dozens of requests for information or content removal requests each month to Google. In the future, do you think governments will hold more or less sway over the Internet?
I think that’s a constant struggle. From our perspective, we’d hope it’ll have less sway; from theirs, they’re looking for more. But that frankly reveals a lack of understanding about what the Internet is. What has made it so strong is its openness and its distributed nature. I’m afraid from my perspective, with governments looking for more control, ultimately the future of the Internet will not be the one we know.
When old politicians talk about the Internet, it’s hilarious. Ted Stevens called the Internet a “series of tubes.” Bush once talked about “the Internets.” Will we ever get to the point where politicians are finally truly Internet savvy?
Frankly speaking, no. [Laughs.] Partly it’s because it is so accessible. People see applications, they have laptops, and they think they understand the Internet. But people conflate the web and Internet. They’re not the same thing. The web is an application on top of the Internet. In their defense, it’s not just governments who don’t understand this. It’s businesses, it’s people on the street. It’s hard to appreciate what makes the Internet the Internet. It’s about decentralization–there is no central point of control or ownership. It’s hard to understand intuitively, because it’s not the way so many of our other systems work. It’s antithetical to structures of control and structures of power. I think it’s actually really hard to grasp; it’s harder to feel comfortable with. So no, I don’t think there’s going to be a significant Internet literacy rise in the future at that level.
So we’ll still be hearing talk of Internets and series of tubes?
Hopefully not. “Bits flying through the air” would be more accurate now, anyway, with wireless.
Some have suggested in the past that the Internet just wasn’t built to handle the vast structures it supports today, and that for security reasons, we ought to just scrap it and start over. Do you think that’ll ever happen?
I think any notion that scraps the Internet and starts from a clean slate is just a non-starter; we won’t be scrapping this Internet for many, many decades. That’s not to say there won’t be other Internets or other structures that both build on and evolve from this one. The Internet is basically a series of building blocks that allow future Internets and future applications. Cybersecurity often does mean a hardening down or locking out, under the guise of protection, but our advice is really to lean in to the real core of what’s made the Internet the Internet–its openness, its resiliency.
You talk about decentralization as a life force for the web. “Balkanization,” though, is a big word that comes up when discussing the future of the internet. Do you think the Internet is headed toward greater unity, or greater fragmentation?
I think we do see Balkanization. ISOC looked at four scenarios for the future of the Internet, and one scenario is Balkanization. We already see facets of what that might look like, with aggressive filtering in some countries–in Egypt, for instance, which largely closed down the Internet this year. There’s a little over 2.5 billion people on the Internet, with another 4 billion people to come on in the future, largely from developing countries. How they use the Internet will significantly impact the Internet’s growth. One of the things we’d like to do is make sure they have access to same Internet, the same openness, that we have. The opportunity to create and develop at the individual level, that’s not at all assured. People should not take the Internet for granted.
Conjure for me a dystopian scenario. In a developing country in the near future under a despotic government, what would a “bad Internet” look like? What will there be? Censorship? Surveillance?
I’m not sure we need to go to anything so severe to have harm. Simply not being able to launch a certain application because someone thought the content was inappropriate, or that it affected a business model. One could imagine, I suppose, governments or telecommunications companies wanting to restrict access to Skype, for instance. It wouldn’t need to be so draconian as full censorship or surveillance.
What will the Internet look like one year from now?
I didn’t realize I was in such a fearful state, but this interview is showing that. My hope would be that I still have the same open access, and that some of the recent activities we’ve seen have not caused a hardening down or restricting of access. My initial response is: I just hope I have access to the Internet, and people have access to same Internet of today. I’m significantly worried over knee-jerk reactions, potentially, to some of the recent activities in North Africa and the Middle East.
And what will the Internet look like 10 years from now?
I hope that individuals will all have better control over their personal data, and that some of the activities we see today in trust and identity come more to the forefront. That users across the world, the developing world–that 4 billion still to come online–take things like privacy, trust, and identity seriously.
How about 25 years from now? I feel like it’s been for ages that people have been imagining the moment where we can just implant the Internet in our brains, so we can Google things by twitching our eyes, or whatever. Why is that taking so long?
I think the ability to call up the Internet on any surface that’s in front of us–our sleeve, the back of our hands, the back of the seat in front of us–a lot of those technologies actually exist today, but just are not at the right cost points. Also, there is some social and cultural acclimatization that needs to happen before that. I just think it’s an increasing pervasiveness. Today, our experience is we pick up a device, a phone, and so on. In the future, there won’t have to be that second step–it will just be with us at all times.
So in 25 years, every object will be connected?
Oh, I think that will happen long before 25 years from now. Literally we will be checking email by looking down at our sleeve, maybe touching part of the sleeve, or possibly blinking our eyes. The user interface will be much more seamless.
A question we’ve raised on the site before is whether the “arc of technology bends toward justice.” Do you think the Internet is inherently a force for good, a force for evil, or is it just a neutral tool that can be wielded either way?
I would say good. We unequivocally believe good. With the Internet being so open, it supports transparency and facilitates the sharing of information. Does it support the arc of justice? I’d have to say yes.