SAN FRANCISCO – On the eve of Independence Day, a who's who of computer experts say that government control, consumer distrust and corporate greed threaten the future of the Internet as we know it.
In a report released Thursday, the Pew Research Center distilled the concerns of over 1,400 computer experts, Internet visionaries and researchers canvassed earlier this year. They were asked whether people will be more or less able to freely share information online in the year 2025.
Sixty-five percent said the web of the future would be more open, 35% less.
The good news is that by 2025 "every human being on the planet will be online. The collision of ideas through the sharing network will lead to explosive innovation and creativity," said filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby awards.
But the open structure that has made the Internet so powerful is under threat, say the experts.
"What the carriers actually want—badly—is to move television to the Net, and to define the Net in TV terms: as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable," said Doc Searls, director of Project VRM at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
That's a far cry from the heady beginnings of the Internet, when users first realized they individually had the power to reach millions of others without publishing houses, newspapers or television stations acting as intermediaries.
As the Internet becomes more commercialized, people may stop seeing it as something they can use to reach out to the world, limiting their expectations of "what the Internet is for," said David Clark, a research scientist at MIT's computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory.
The challenge is to prevent the web from becoming "just a corporate entertainment-delivery system," said Mike Roberts, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame.
Threats to 'net neutrality,' the treatment of all senders and receivers as equals, could destroy the power of individuals. The experts fear companies will instead focus on increasing revenue by sending the content of the highest bidders first, relegating those who can't pay to the slow lanes.
"The interests of everyday users count for very little," said P.J. Ray, a researcher at the University of Maryland.
Another concern is increased government regulation and censorship. Countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey have blocked Internet access to control the flow of information. China famously has its "Great Firewall" to keep unwanted news from its citizens.
"The pressure to balkanize the global Internet will continue and create new uncertainties. Governments will become more skilled at blocking access to unwelcome sites," said Paul Saffo, a futurist and professor at Stanford University.
Many worry that government and corporate surveillance will only increase. "The next few years are going to be about control," said Danah Boyd, a research scientist at Microsoft.
While governments focus on stopping dissent and terrorism, companies are concerned with extending copyright, to keep lucrative franchises like Mickey Mouse or "Gone With the Wind" from falling into the public domain.
"The dominant content companies may seek ever more rigorous ways to prevent the flow of copyright content within and across borders," said Kate Crawford, a professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There is a relentless push to have copyright reach "into the near-infinite past" in the words of Jeremy Epstein, a computer scientist at SRI International, a non-profit research institute in Menlo Park, Calif.
However, others argue that eventually "sharing freely will be recognized as having greater long-term economic value than strictly limited controls over intellectual property," in the words of Clark Sept, co-founder of Business Place Strategies.
Still, no less an expert than Vince Cerf, the co-inventor of the protocols that make the Internet possible, is hopeful. By 2025 governments and corporations will realize that being adaptable is important.
In the end, he said, "the Internet will become far more accessible than it is today."