Trust in the Internet is a fragile thing

Posted: July 07, 2014

Can't believe Facebook might have been manipulating your news feed to play with your mood? That was last month's little bombshell on how the social network allowed researchers to tweak what nearly 700,000 Facebook members saw for one week in 2012 to test psychological theories on mood contagion.

If you were truly shocked, it's fair to say you weren't really paying attention. Even if a chagrined Facebook pulls back on its openness to research, and ethicists warn of the dangers of "human experimentation," the fact is that we've all been part of a giant social and economic experiment since 1991, when the first website went online.

Twenty-three years after its birth - 25, if you count the Web as born when British scientist Tim Berners-Lee first introduced its key HTML computer code - the Web continues to alter the human experience. It now reaches nearly three billion people worldwide, living up to what once seemed a grandiose name. But as it grows truly ubiquitous, some who helped shape today's Web see an increasingly cloudy future, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Pew has been asking experts about the future of the Net since 2004. But Lee Rainie, who heads its Internet Project, says this year's answers had a different tone - "a little more worried and a little more urgent about whether the Internet we know and love will be different in the future."

Rainie wouldn't discuss the Facebook furor, except to say that the massive social network has been a treasure trove for researchers - including Pew's - trying to understand social interaction, on and offline. Two years ago, Pew published a study showing that the average Facebook user gets more from his or her friends - messages, friend requests, "likes" - than the user gives back, thanks to a cadre of highly active "power users" whose generosity balances the numbers.

Like earlier mood research by Facebook's Adam Kramer, lead author of the study that briefly manipulated news feeds, Pew's study was only observational. But its survey of experts shows that many worry about companies and governments that are much less hands-off - and not for the advancement of science.

"What some people are saying is that they fear trust will disappear," says Rainie's coauthor, Janna Anderson of Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center.

Why is trust so important? Because nearly everything people do online - everything, if you count simply visiting and reading websites - relies on trust.

Since the birth of the Web, people have worried about online commerce - whether their data will be secure from hackers and scammers. More recently, many have worried that companies are pushing privacy to the breaking point for commercial gain.

And some have worried about blowback for information, opinions, and even photos they post online. As companies sift job applicants' social-media trails, some recent college grads have learned that maybe they should have worried just a wee bit more.

But the most serious concern - so far mostly affecting people living under repressive regimes - is the risk of retribution for using the Web to speak up. For us, the Web has been a tremendous engine of free speech - everybody can now be a publisher. But in countries such Egypt and China, home of the notorious "Great Firewall," Internet users have discovered that free-flowing information can be slowed or suddenly turned off.

What other threats drew repeated mention from Pew's panel of 1,400 experts? Anderson says two stood out. (See the report at http://bit.ly/1vB14aw.)

One reflects risks from the increased commercialization of the Net and the threat to Net-neutrality principles. Doc Searls, of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, worries that network owners will remake the freewheeling Web "as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable."

Another, ironically, is that the Web will suffer a "too much information" problem, so that the need to filter will give too much power to the algorithm writers. What gets lost then, Rainie says, is "that wonderful and moving encounter with serendipitous information."

What the Web giveth, in other words, the filters may take away.


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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