Wheeler: Information will 'flow like the breeze'; Pew: No, it won't

As an optimistic Tom Wheeler waxed poetic in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, pointing to wireless broadband as a key technology that will help Internet data "flow like the breeze" in the near future, a Pew Research report dropped that shines a pessimistic light on the free exchange of information.

Tom Wheeler, FCC

Wheeler (Source: FCC)

Wheeler, who frequently cites historical precedent when talking about the future of communications, wrote that the growth of wireless devices could drive "the greatest network-driven change in history."

"In the not-too-distant future, wireless communications will connect not just everyone, but everything. When 50 billion inanimate devices are talking to each other (Cisco's forecast for 2020), information will flow like the breeze among sensors and databases," he wrote. The FCC chairman also encouraged companies to somehow "push past network legacies" to find new opportunities.

But responses from a survey conducted by Pew Research were not so rosy.

According to several experts, the Internet is in danger, no matter how hard Wheeler is trying to sell the latest batch of net neutrality rules.

The Pew Research Internet Project, as part of its 2014 Future of the Internet report, received responses from more than 1,400 Internet experts and members of the public to the question: "By 2025, will there be significant changes for the worse and hindrances to the ways in which people get and share content online compared with the way globally networked people can operate online today?"

Their answers, submitted between late November and mid-January, were cautious at best. Many of those who answered "no" also elaborated that it was their hope that the online world would not change for the worse, rather than any evidence to the contrary.

The Internet is facing four major threats, the report found: actions by nation-states to block, filter or control Internet content; the threat to privacy posed by government and corporate surveillance; commercial pressures that affect the flow of information and perhaps even the Internet's architecture; and overzealous efforts to fix the problem of releasing sensitive information that could threaten all content sharing.

Commercial pressure is currently the most visible and concerning problem for online video providers, if Netflix's (NASDAQ: NFLX) steady carping about bandwidth throttling by Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) holds true. But the solution to that doesn't appear to be as simple as a blanket net neutrality resolution, according to comments from the responders.

"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," wrote Doc Searles, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "For this they'll run two-sided markets: on the supply side doing deals with "content providers" such as Hollywood and big publishers, and on the demand side by intermediating the sale of that content."

Transport providers are also part of the problem, some feel. "(C)ontinuing to dismantle the 'middle men' is key," wrote Glenn Edens, director of research at PARC in his response, saying that content creators need to be able to directly reach their audiences.

But network operators and transport providers aren't necessarily the only culprits. "We are seeing an increase in walled gardens created by giants like Facebook and Apple … Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet," an unnamed post-doctoral researcher said in his response.

Overall, Pew's respondents weren't really happy with the direction the Internet is taking as it grows.

"In a political paradigm where money equals political speech so much hinges on how much ISPs and content providers are willing and able to spend on defending their competing interests," wrote PJ Rey, a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. "Unfortunately, the interests of everyday users count for very little."

For more:
- see this WSJ op-ed
- and this Pew Research report

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