ABU DHABI – We have created an online world whose vastness exceeds our comprehension. As a measure of its magnitude, consider this: In 2012, the new Internet address system, IPv6, created more than 340 trillion trillion trillion (3.4 x 1038) addresses – that is, around 4.8 x 1028 addresses for every person on earth. That should be sufficient to service the five billion devices that currently connect to the internet, and the 22 billion devices forecast to be in use by 2020.
The hard part of the connectivity explosion is not building capacity, but how it should be managed. We must answer profound questions about the way we live. Should everyone be permanently connected to everything? Who owns which data, and how should information be made public? Can and should data use be regulated, and, if so, how? And what role should government, business, and ordinary Internet users play in addressing these issues?
Such questions can no longer be ignored. As the virtual world expands, so, too, do breaches of trust and misuse of personal data. Surveillance has increased public unease – and even paranoia – about state agencies. Private companies that trade in personal data have incited the launch of a “reclaim privacy” movement. As one delegate at a recent World Economic Forum debate, noted: “The more connected we have become, the more privacy we have given up.”
But we can shape our future cyber-world in a way that keeps our data safe, reestablishes trust online, and welcomes in billions of new participants. Ensuring security will require that the Internet’s many stakeholders establish some kind of governance system. Organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will need to become much more global in scope.
At the same time, we must guard against over-regulation or government control. This might require us to phase out the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority to prevent it from falling under the control of an inter-governmental body, as some states have demanded.
Governments certainly have an important part to play. But too much control would almost certainly stifle innovation, increase costs, and probably exclude important anti-establishment voices. A better approach, and one that would enhance public trust in the system, would be to establish diversified stewardship with multiple stakeholders.
One such stakeholder group is business. Now that our personal data have become such a valuable asset, companies are coming under increasing pressure to develop online business models that protect rather than exploit users’ private information. In particular, Internet users want to stop companies befuddling their customers with convoluted and legalistic service agreements in order to extract and sell their data.
This type of abuse could be limited by creating legal and social contracts to govern the authorization of data use. One idea, proposed by the information scientist Marc Davis, is to draw up a standard, readable seven-point “Terms of Service” agreement that empowers people’s control of the uses of their personal data. Another is to allow users themselves to decide from a preset menu how much personal information they are prepared to share.
But the trust issue goes beyond just regulation. Companies must find ways to introduce new technologies and do business that are popular with their customers and retain their trust. (Indeed, in a world of human-robot interfaces, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and shale-gas extraction, any innovative company must ask itself this basic question.)
Finally, we must consider the human dimension of our virtual world. Hyper-connectivity not only creates new commercial opportunities; it also changes the way ordinary people think about their lives. The so-called FoMo (fear of missing out) syndrome reflects the anxieties of a younger generation whose members feel compelled to capture instantly everything they do and see.
Ironically, this hyper-connectivity has increased our insularity, as we increasingly live through our electronic devices. Neuroscientists believe that this may even have altered how we now relate to one another in the real world.
At the heart of this debate is the need to ensure that in a world where many, if not all, of the important details of our lives – including our relationships – exist in cyber-perpetuity, people retain, or reclaim, some level of control over their online selves. While the world of forgetting may have vanished, we can reshape the new one in a way that benefits rather than overwhelms us. Our overriding task is to construct a digital way of life that reinforces our existing sense of ethics and values, with security, trust, and fairness at its heart.