Living Inside the Computer: Building Responsible IoT

A new paper by the NetGain Partnership examines the opportunities and dangers of a pervasive web

Today, we live online. The Internet intersects with everything from commerce and journalism to art and civic participation.

But more and more, living online doesn’t mean sitting in front of a screen, mouse in hand. The Internet of Things — the networked computing environment that spans the globe — allows the web to permeate our clothes, our homes, our healthcare. The web is now made up of billions of connected devices and zettabytes of data. It’s pervasive.

A pervasive Internet isn’t a novelty or a linear step forward. It’s an extraordinary leap that brings online power grids, emergency alert systems, pacemakers and appliances. It requires our deep thought and attention. And it needs a guiding set of principles.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen the power the Internet wields. It’s a force that can unseat dictators, revolutionize education, reshape economies and connect billions. But it’s also a force that can surveil, repress, harass and exclude. It can undermine our most important values.

Now, we’re at an inflection point. As IoT evolves and permeates even more personal corners of our lives, we must balance progress with principles. We can’t only ask, “What’s possible?” We must also ask, “What’s responsible?”

The NetGain Partnership — a broad coalition of nonprofits committed to an Internet in the public interest — has published a paper on the road ahead. “We All Live in the Computer Now” explores the opportunities of a pervasive Internet, the challenges and where we go next.

IoT can work for the public good. It can fuel the movement for open knowledge and technology. IoT can contribute to a better planet: Cities like San Antonio, Barcelona and Hubli have used IoT to conserve water and energy. IoT can empower citizens: From Hong Kong to Dublin, people are using the web to participate in government. And IoT can fuel do-good organizations and movements, from Arduino to makerspaces.

On the flip side, there are existential dangers. IoT can erode privacy: Legions of connected microphones and cameras unknowingly track our movements and conversations. Governments surveil citizens en masse, and profit-minded businesses horde personal data. IoT also means more vulnerabilities, from the recent Dyn attack to the hacking of elections.

Examining past Internet inflection points is helpful. There were times that — in hindsight — would have benefited from a better balance of progress and principle. As the web exploded in the 90s, power was quickly consolidated in the hands of a browser monopoly. More recently, we’ve learned that much of the web’s evolution has favored the privileged, and left others — like non-English speakers, and the poorest among us — behind.

Yes, we’ve made positive progress on these fronts. Internet users now have more browser choice and control. And NGOs, businesses and governments are investing in digital inclusion. But right now, we have an opportunity to head off future dangers proactively. In the early era of IoT, we can shape a positive future.

What do we do? Philanthropies like Mozilla, Ford, Knight, MacArthur and Open Society are on the front lines of building a better Internet. And IoT will be the first big battle of 2017. In our paper, we share six guiding principles for better IoT. We’re also planning research, grantmaking and salons to further chart the future. And NetGain is seeking more technologists, activists and entrepreneurs for the movement.

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