Advances in Internet connectivity and social penetration have made access to information easier and cheaper, whilst facilitating communication, organisation and collective action. However, the same technology that assists charity fundraising, civic political participation and corporate accountability also has the simultaneous capacity to empower cyber criminals and terrorist/extremist networks. Without the evolution of interoperable and user friendly technical regimes to support online trust, secure authentication and identification at national and international level, the hazard of those latter set of behaviours risks offsetting the benefits of the former.
A 2007 report on the Digital Ecosystem looking at possible evolving scenarios to 2015, noted that the convergence of the media, telecoms and information technology industries as empowered individuals as “contributors to online communities and as creators and distributors of digital content and services” (see page 2). Indeed, in many ways 2012 represented a new high water mark for internet activism (Economist, The New Politics of the Internet, January 2013) in a context where private citizens stood shoulder to shoulder beside the likes of technology giants like Google to successfully derail the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) through generating over 10 million petition signatures and 3 million emails directed at members of Congress (Forbes – Who Really Stopped Sopa and Why?). Later that year, a similar surge in online public activism (including web coordinated physical protests involving thousands of Europeans – BBC News, January 2012) led to the defeat of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in the European Parliament in June 2012 (Guardian, June 2012). These development demonstrate not only the capacity of the Internet to assist collective mobilisation and empowerment – but also the rising importance of the Internet in people’s lives, given that both pieces of US and EU legislation were seen as a threat publically accepted norms of online consumption and exploration. According to a survey of consumers in 13 countries by the Boston Consulting Group, 75% of respondents would give up alcohol, 27% sex and 22% showers for a year – if the refusing to do so meant no access to the Internet (Economist, January 2013).
Of course the capacity of technology to empower can be channelled in both positive and negative ways. A 2012 Global Information Technology Report (see page 118) produced by the World Economic Forum notes that technologies (mobile texting, Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger services) which facilitated the assembly and coordination of opposition groups in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the 2011 uprising against Egyptian President Mubarak are essentially identical to those used to organise the network of destructive flash mobs during the riots which struck multiple cities in the UK during the summer of 2011.
The November 2012 edition of the International Journal on Computer Science and Engineering (see page 1816), reports the rapid proliferation and increased sophistication of web sites and online forums used by terrorist and extremist groups for fundraising, recruitment, coordination and distribution of propaganda materials. Professor Batil identifies that the continuing evolution of the Internet to sponsor the delivery of multi-media rich content, user generated content and community-based social interactions presents an “ideal environment” for the promotion of extremist ideologies and a virtual platform for the anonymous organisation of criminal activities such as money laundering and drugs trafficking (Ibid).
The 2013 Global Agenda Report which draws upon specialist input from 1,500 global experts (from academia, business, civil society, government and international organisations), of which 900 were brought together for a 2012 Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai, contends that “a theme common to all these discussions is the increased role in technology in 2013 and its associated risks” (see page 4). In an environment where the risks of far reaching infrastructural “cyber shocks” must be balanced against the potential benefits of networked smart cities, the experts alternately championed and doubted the benefits of an increasingly hyper-connected world for individuals and society (see page 6).
One key problem identified was the lack of legal, technical, economic or regulatory structures to determine how different parties share and control the flow of information and data (Marc Davis – Microsoft, see page 17), alongside a “lack of trust driving demand for disproportionate control” (Robert Madelin – European Commission – page 17). It was suggested that this should not be seen as a technical or technological issue, but instead as a fundamental question about the future structure of digital society, how we define and identify individuals within that society, and who has which rights to see and use information for certain purposes (Marc Davis – see page 16).
There was also simultaneous concern that as we migrate towards defining the approaches and technical standards which are required for international interoperability and trust – a large scale cyber-attack or data breach could lead to a crisis of public trust in the ability of governments and organisations to manage that data (Robert Madelin – see page 17). It was also contended that “today’s leaders have been trained in a world which no longer exists” and that the evolving threats posed by cyber criminals and cyber warfare are not adequately owned at the top level of large corporations and governments which leads to an underweight collective response to those emerging threats (Ibid).