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Threats to the Internet

The InternetThe Pew Research Center recently issued a report that looks at the various threats faced by the Internet going into the not-too-distant future of 2025. The report was prepared by inviting 12,000 industry experts to opine on the various issues and problems they see with the Internet going forward. While Pew received a wide array of responses they were able to boil the responses into four trends that might threaten the Internet as we know it:

Actions by nation-states to maintain security and political control will lead to more filtering, segmentation and balkanization of the Internet.

We are already starting to see this today. Governments now routinely disrupt the web at times of crisis as has happened recently in the Middle East. Numerous governments censor the web to some degree with the most blatant example being China. But many other countries do this to lesser extent. For example, the major ISPs in Great Britain routinely block content related to pornography, suicide, gambling, violence, weapons and even dating. People can go through a process to opt out of the blocking, but even with the opt-out there is content that is not available in the country.

Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.

This is somewhat related to the first item above, because the revelations related to the NSA spying have led many countries to begin the process of establishing firewalls around the data in their country. This is going to greatly hinder any world-wide cloud products and may even go a long way towards isolating a lot of materials from search engines.

But lack of trust also affects the people using the Internet and many are starting to look at web products and software that will disguise or hide their identity. Further, there is a segment of the population that refuses to use the web due to fear of surveillance. While NSA and government spying grab the headlines, many of the experts are more worried about the data-gathering efforts of large companies like Google and Facebook and the chilling impact that might eventually have on using the Internet.

Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.

This goes to the heart of the network neutrality battle going on in the US. If the major ISPs here begin giving preferential treatment to some content providers then the open web as we know it starts deteriorating. But the fear of the experts goes much farther than net neutrality. Many of them worry that the web is being consolidated into the control of a small handful of network and content companies in the same manner that has happened to cable companies and the media in the US. They fear that control of the Internet by a handful of corporations will lead to decisions about the web based upon short-term quarterly profits rather than doing what is best for the whole web.

Efforts to fix the TMI (too much information) problem might over-compensate and actually thwart content sharing.

There is already a lot of information on the web and it is actually already getting harder and harder to find exactly what you are looking for. And the amount of information available is climbing at a dizzying rate. The fear of many experts is that there will be software and companies that will filter the web for people and that these filters are liable to have as much of a negative influence on the web as censorship or other overt blocking of data. Any editing of data starts to look like censorship as soon as it introduces bias.

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Technology The Industry

What Happened to the Digital Divide?

Internet Access Here Sign (Photo credit: Steve Rhode)

There was hardly a time in the late 90’s and early 00’s when broadband was discussed that the topic of digital divide was not mentioned. Government entities, policy people and even service providers talked about solving the digital divide to make sure that everybody had access to the Internet. There were committees and commissions formed in many communities to help solve the digital divide and to make sure that every child had a computer and an internet connection.

From what I can see the topic has disappeared from discussion and I rarely seeing the topic discussed any more. Does this mean that the digital divide has been solved? Certainly there are a lot more households with Internet access today than a decade ago, but do the poorest households now subscribe to the Internet?

Before one can even answer the question we need to define what broadband is. The FCC defines broadband as the ability to get a landline service with a download speed of at least 4 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps. In most markets that is one of the lower-speed products available and speeds in metropolitan and suburban areas are now much faster than that. According the numbers released by the FCC in August of 2012 there were 19 million people in the US with no access to broadband and another 100 million with access to broadband but who do not purchase it. But there are many who dispute the way that the FCC counted the 19 million figure and think that the real number is much larger.

Another way to look at the market is by households and the Leichtman Research Group did a study in 2012 that showed that there are almost 81 million homes with broadband, or just at 70% of all households. That same study said that broadband penetration rates in homes with average household incomes under $30,000 had only a 52% broadband penetration rate while homes with incomes over $50,000 had a 97% penetration rate. Obviously there are a lot of households who feel they cannot afford broadband.

Today one has to ask if landline broadband is the only kind of broadband. For example comscore reports that 133 million people owned smartphones as of February 2013, or 57% of everybody over 13 years old. Certainly there are many people whose only Internet access is with a smartphone.

A Pew Research Center study released a study earlier this year of the Internet usage of teenagers between 12 and 17. This group uses the Internet more than any other age group and 95% of teenagers access the Internet at least one per month. But 25% of teenagers only have a smartphone to use for Internet access. One has to question if smartphone usage is really broadband. Certainly you can read news, update Facebook and play games on a smartphone. But it’s sheer torture to use a smartphone to write something even as long as this blog and it’s hard to see smartphones being a broadband substitute for school kids trying to do various types of homework. The smartphone wasn’t really designed to handle files in the same way as a laptop or computer.

One thing that is clear in the figures is that the lower the income the less likelihood that a household will find broadband to be affordable. And to me that says that we still have the digital divide. But for some reason, nobody is talking about it anymore.

One statistic that I found interesting is that the Leichtman report said that 90% of households with computers have broadband. When you compare that to the statistics that say that only 52% of households with household incomes under $30,000 have broadband it is also easy to say that an awful lot of those homes don’t have computers.

I remember a decade ago there were major programs developed to get computers into households, particularly households with children. I just did a Google search and found a few such programs are still active, like one in Chicago, but getting computers into homes was a major focus for my clients and the country as a whole a decade ago. And that seems to have basically dwindled away as a priority.

I don’t know the reasons for this, but I can postulate. Broadband access seems to be ubiquitous in middle class neighborhoods and it is now the rare house that doesn’t have a computer and Internet access. Perhaps everybody just assumes that this is now true everywhere, while it is not. If the FCC numbers are to be believed there are still 119 million people without Internet access. Back the babies out of that number and there are still a whole lot of people without broadband.

It seems to me that the digital divide hasn’t gone away at all. We have just stopped talking or caring about it. Maybe it’s time to put this back on the agenda.