The internet is a constantly evolving technological platform. It’s unlikely that when the very first internet users who were logging on in the 1970s and 1980s could fathom the transformative impact the technology would have over the next forty years. The advent of email, the world wide web, and eventually social media has changed the way people around the globe interact socially, politically, and economically.
Unfortunately, the past decade has not been kind to global internet freedom. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report, online liberties and internet freedom have declined every year for the past ten years. At the same time, we have seen halting progress on some important issues, such as the expansion of internet connectivity and attempts from governments and private companies to secure privacy online.
As we head into the next decade, the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative reached out to digital rights luminaries from around the globe to get their take on how they hope the internet will evolve over this next decade. Below are their responses to our prompt:
What is your vision of the internet in 2030? What current challenges do you hope we will have solved by then?
Executive Director, Samir Kassir Foundation
By 2030, connectivity will increase and the internet will surely provide more comfort and quality of life for most connected people. Yet, the key challenge is to safeguard the democratic social contract. This entails resolving the issue of disconnected information spheres, in which people are siloed into separate information bubbles, as well as reforming the corporate internet giants such that their business models do not depend on surveillance capitalism.
Executive Director, Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator
“The internet” of 2021 already functions as the infrastructure of connected societies and is inseparable from most realms of life. Accordingly, a positive democratic vision of “the internet” in 2030 would amount to a democratic vision of society writ large. Realization of this vision will require that we address four significant current challenges: First, privacy must be recognized as a foundation for liberty and more effective means of protecting this fundamental right must be invented and be made ubiquitous. Second, universal internet access must be recognized as necessary for the exercise of all fundamental human rights and be made globally available. Third, society-wide security vulnerabilities within connected societies must be tackled systemically and comprehensively, and civic resilience to cyber threats must be dramatically boosted. But most importantly, a democratic human rights-based model of governance must be championed in digital society. Current divisions between and within democracies over use of data and regulation of “internet” companies have undermined confidence in the feasibility of democratic, values-based governance in this context. Democracies must do the hard work of articulating how to apply enduring human rights principles to digital society and bring the connected world of 2030 to this vision.
Wu Min Hsuan (Ttcat)
Co-founder and CEO, Doublethink Lab
1. Reshape the profit models of the media industry in order to challenge the monopoly of social media and online advertising companies with the goal of helping credible sources of information successfully navigate the internet.
2. Foster new connectivity initiatives, such as public satellite internet, to prevent government and corporate surveillance or private data harvesting.
3. Champion reform or a “new deal” among internet platforms to expose information operations and microtargeting which might jeopardize democracy.
Executive Director, Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
I hope that by 2030, the global internet governance community will rethink the economic and governance architecture of the Internet, develop strong ethical principles especially in the field of artificial intelligence, and create economic incentives and business models grounded in human rights. Today, systems that underpin the professional production of news and professional reporting are challenged even in the most advanced democracies. The coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism and access to credible, reliable information. With the pandemic amplifying converging crises, including the demise of journalism’s economic model, we need a powerful multi-stakeholder action in order to build information systems fit for the future.
A comprehensive transformation is required in the way our information is produced, distributed, and valued – including consumption patterns of 4.6 billion internet users globally. To enable such a transformation, several challenges need to be solved (hopefully by 2030): digital market failure and the regulatory disparity between digital platforms and heavily regulated media businesses must be addressed; a system of economic incentives needs to be re-imagined and reshaped in line with ethical and human rights principles, and regulators must recognize that the news media provide a public good and create conditions for professional reporting, media diversity, and plurality to thrive.
Mary Rose Ofianga
Internet connection will be available down to the last mile, where we can connect wherever we are in the world.
Francisco Brito Cruz
Co-founder and Director, InternetLab
I envision a fragmented internet in 2030. Amid antitrust claims, political divisions, emerging regulation, and societal complexification I believe that we might see an expansion of current centralization in terms of social media platforms. I also think that we might see a more regulated internet, which could affect today's standards online in the West, such as platform immunity and centralized content moderation.
I hope we solve the challenge of concentration by 2030 by tackling the important antitrust discussion and setting a new playing field for future innovation. I also hope we can address the relationship between children and internet platforms, reworking standards for social media usage by kids and teens. However, I have no hope that we could solve deep political issues that emerge on the internet, but have social and cultural roots, such as hate speech—this kind of challenge is a generational one, not capable of being solved in a decade.
Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative
Over the last decade, we saw a lot of violations of digital rights and a heightened debate about issues like privacy and content moderation, among others. My vision for 2030 is that we will solve—or at least reduce—the impact of these challenges.
My vision of 2030 is, first, of active citizens who push back on digital rights violations and engage in policy processes to make them truly bottom-up and diverse. I also look forward to an Internet ecosystem that prioritizes privacy as a default requirement, and one where issues of content moderation will be resolved without hurting digital rights.
With many governments introducing new laws that legitimize acts that violate citizen rights, it is important to educate citizens about their rights, the need for involvement in policy making, and the role they have in pushing back on abuses, so I look forward to massive digital policy education over the next few years.
Privacy by design and other business practices that respect citizen/user rights will happen by 2030 if we help the business community realize that human rights is actually very good for business. I also hope that in solving the challenges that come with content moderation, businesses will develop new models that solve the problem and bring additional benefits.
2030 is only 9 years away, so I guess it is going to be a very busy decade for digital rights actors!
Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
A free, open, pluralistic, globally connected and decentralized internet where human rights and independent journalism flourishes. I hope we will have solved the issue of encouraging and propelling business models that incentivize extremism and polarization, enable online harassment, and undermine the sustainability of journalism. I hope that we will have solved content moderation issues in a transparent and just way that protects the most vulnerable and excluded.
Coalizão Direitos na Rede (Rights Online Coalition)
By 2030, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social isolation, I believe the world will have connected more people. I hope that it will be possible to not only reduce the number of disconnected people, but to also ameliorate lingering inequality in terms of connection quality. Currently, this disparity online intensifies economic, social, and cultural inequality in the world, and affects many vulnerable groups including women, non-white people, and ethnic minorities who are already socially excluded.
I believe that in 2030 the importance of social networks and digital platforms will be even more significant for the exercise of rights such as access to information, freedom of expression and the organization of civil society. Through multi-stakeholder initiatives and mechanisms of democratic regulation, I hope that it is possible to establish limits to the power of private companies to exercise these rights, and to contain the risks this poses to democracies. Finally, I also hope that by 2030 it will be possible to advance the regulation of different players in order to ensure privacy and personal data protection of internet users, under the risk that the other rights we exercise online will continue to be affected by massive collection and treatment of our information.
Policy Director, Access Now
First, we need a decentralized internet that is truly open and free from oligopolies in all of its layers and devoid of authoritarian attempts to centralize information exchange. We should address the dominance of tech platforms and create economic incentives to make room for new and innovative services. Governments, on the other hand, should cease their attempts at centralizing internet infrastructure and proposing new protocols to facilitate surveillance and control—such as “New IP” or “Future Vertical Communication Networks.”
Second, we need to connect everyone to high quality connections—fast, open, secure, reliable, and resilient—at affordable rates. Meaningful access can only be achieved by creating public-interest infrastructure and providing resources necessary to support all users, recognizing the multiplicity of languages, genders, cultures at play.
Third, the fundamental right to privacy, including strong end-to-end encryption, should be at the heart of the internet and internet technologies in the coming years. We have only begun suffering the consequences of the internet fueled by the exploitation of personal data by private parties. Governments have taken advantage of the ease with which they can spy on people and mounted surveillance programs on top of these services.
Ephraim Percy Kenyanito
Senior Program Officer, ARTICLE 19
Platforms, especially those at the infrastructure level, such as the Google Play Store and Apple App Store as well as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Domain Name System (DNS) players have so much power. My vision is a future in which these platforms at the infrastructure level are more human rights respecting.
Founding Director, Ranking Digital Rights
Networked technologies need to be designed, operated, managed, and governed in a manner that is compatible with democracy and human rights. Most fundamentally, democracy and human rights cannot be served or protected unless power can be held accountable—whether power is exercised physically or digitally. People need to know who has access to their data under what circumstances. When power over our data is abused either by a government or a company, it must be possible to know that the abuse was committed, and by whom; there must be consequences imposed on abusers, and victims must have access to meaningful remedy. Similarly, when a government or private entity restricts, blocks, distorts, or otherwise manipulates peoples' speech and/or access to information in a manner that violates the human right to freedom of expression and information, it must be possible to identify the abuse, hold the abuser accountable and provide adequate remedy. To that end, transparency and oversight requirements for government authorities as well as private companies are essential. Strong data protection/privacy law is essential, as are independent privacy and security audit requirements.
In an ideal internet of 2030, communities would be able to participate in the design and governance of platforms for civic discourse that they can use for activism, problem solving, and information sharing. People will not be completely dependent on massive global platforms designed to maximize targeted advertising revenue, as they are today.
On such an internet, people must be able to use encrypted communications channels to conduct investigative journalism, expose corruption, and abuse of power, etc. It must be possible for people—including minorities and vulnerable groups under threat of persecution—to use networked technologies to find each other and form communities. In physical communities, local community media is publicly supported. Locally-controlled platforms for community discourse, information, sharing and problem solving are robust and well-supported as a public good, as libraries and schools are (or should be). As a result, communities with strong local information ecosystems and community leadership, with robust protections of civil and political rights, are less vulnerable to extremism and disinformation.