Game-changers and the Internet of 2032
If we look 20 years forward, what do we see? What are the game-changers?
These are the questions posed for this panel. They are not easy to answer, but they are easy in the sense that you wouldn't know it if I were totally wrong, because it will take 20 years to prove that I am wrong and by then I hope you will not remember what I have said.
But really, when I look at these questions, the first thing I ask myself was, is the development of the Internet so predictable? I tend to think not. But maybe the game-changers or the key trends are easier to spot, although sometimes we may not know in advance where they may lead us.
To begin, I see conflicts. Conflicts between the governments and those in society with power, from political powers to economical or social or cultural power, with those common, average people who uses the Internet and especially the younger generation who are not only growing up with the Internet but literally born with the Internet. The struggle for control of the Internet between them – as a set of technological tools, as an environment, as a lifestyle -- will intensify greatly.
It is obvious that governments around the world, and increasingly we are not only talking about the authoritative totalitarian regimes in the world, but more and more western democracies, trying to legalize the control they want to impose for the Internet, starting with surveillance in the greatest measures.
Privacy and security is one of the key battlegrounds, but copyright is another. As we speak now here in Geneva, back home in Hong Kong where I came from, netizens especially youngsters and artists are organizing themselves in unprecedented ways to oppose government legislative attempt to strengthen copyright enforcement in the digital world, all dressed in the goodness of 'protecting the creative environment' but without providing exemption for re-creation or parody or satirical treatment on copyrighted works. Such opposition was unexpected in scale and scope by our government, to say the least.
And I'll use Hong Kong as an example for this coming conflict between the wish for more control by the authorities and powerful businesses on the one hand, and the urge for more freedom by Internet users all over the world on the other. Hong Kong is in a particularly unique crossroad situation because even as a part of the People's Republic of China, we have an advanced, affordable, almost ubiquitous environment for the Internet and telecommunications usage, where our access to content is as free as anywhere else on earth, without any filtering. Yet right across our border the situation would be totally different, with the most widespread, technologically and operationally advanced and functional Great Firewall in the world for content filtering. Other governments do have so much to learn from China, and many have openly said so.
So for us in Hong Kong, not one moment passed that we don't look over our shoulders to watch what may be coming, when and where the next clampdown may arrive. We know the free flow of information is our biggest current asset, and now almost suddenly our young Internet users have learned to use the net as a tool to defend their rights, much in the same ways as the young people have been doing in Egypt and other places.
But if we look once again at the situation across the border from Hong Kong into the Mainland China, here's where the real contradiction lies. You may think that is a land still isolated with this powerful, efficient and effective Great Firewall. Yes and no. The reality is that people there – the biggest population of Internet users in the world in any country – have more freedom and access to more information than they ever had before. Most do not get arrested for speaking out their minds, and I am not saying that of course to defend the rulers. If anything, the Chinese Internet users still have a choice to circumvent the firewall if they want to, and they are making changes to their society using the Internet in ways unseen before.
Just as people are more alike one another than they're not all across the world, governments are alike too when it comes to the will to control, especially on things that they worry to be out of their control.
So, in Hong Kong and in the Mainland China, I think we are having a front row seat to witness these game-changers in the next twenty years – the greatest technologies to control the Internet and the people on it, and the greatest will from the people to stop these interference, using yet many of the same technologies to circumvent and counter.
These will be where the greatest innovation may take place, and I am not talking just about security software or circumvention tools. They can also be the next generation of social media platforms that will allow people to share and get organized more easily or on a different level.
So with these game-changers, where will we be in 2032? My greatest hope will be that the Internet of tomorrow will withstand governmental interference and continue to be governed, as well as function and operate relatively free from governmental and inter- and intra-governmental control, and that the Internet users – those who are very young today who will be the leaders in twenty years' time – will develop into truly responsible next-generation leaders of the Internet. But that’s only my hope, and I am not sure if I can call that a prediction yet, because I still harbor an opposite worry, that the governments of the world may become more successful in exerting their influence.
And I will close with one example. While we all marvel at the convenience and benefits of Twitter as a micro-blogging, the Twitter copycats in China, called Weibo, have "innovated" way beyond Twitter has in terms of functionalities, user-friendliness and integration with mobile, cameras and other equipment. Yes, the government has also established a very closely monitored control mechanism on its user-generated content. Yet, users and dissidents share information relatively freely – I guess using that same 11 minute rule that our copyright friends talk about the time it takes for a TV program to be pirated onto the net, for that same 11 or so minutes before the content will be removed by the censors – to create social changes.
If that is possible behind the Great Firewall, I think we have reasons to be more optimistic about 2032 than we have to be pessimistic.
Presentation at Closing Roundtable of Global INET 2012: “Game-changers: Where will they take us by 2032?”