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Why Our Future Depends on a Neutral Internet

03/15/2014 01:00 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

As we approach 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it is imperative to appreciate the magnitude of that global catastrophe and contrast that dark period with the overwhelming potential that our networked civilization now possesses in 2014.

Rising from the trenches, humanity has established mesmerizing infrastructure that allows instantaneous communication through high-speed mobile internet and near omniscient search capabilities. Such power has made the prospect of transformational change and cooperative development seem limitless.

But just as no one living in 1914 could have foreseen the exponential horrors of the Second World War a mere twenty-five years later, likewise today we face the simultaneous onslaught of technological advances and government-sanctioned invasions of privacy, whose combined long-term ramifications for humanity are simply unknowable.

Such uncertainty about our collective digital future demands careful scrutiny of our governing practices today, and necessitates the development of visionary information policies which comprehensively confront these complex dilemmas.

Individually, this is a daunting task for even the most socially aware global citizen. However our modern-day capacity to connect, build and share has never been greater. One organization with the intellect and will to help tackle these challenges head-on is the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community, an exclusive network of 3000 young leaders who are daily demonstrating what is possible when people unite.

Global Shapers seek to better the state of the world through city-based Hubs of young professional leaders who are exceptional in their potential, their achievements, and their drive to make a contribution to their communities.

Through support for initiatives like Global Dignity Day, Solar for Syria and numerous education programs, Global Shapers are leveraging the internet to unite communities and give hope in an era of increasing conflict, sectarianism and despair.

These young professionals are also thought leaders in their own right, passionate about foreign affairs, and seek to understand the drivers of future conflicts in order to counter them with actionable solutions.

In reflecting on the Great War's centennial, the Shapers recognize that the internet has become so pervasive and so routine that most people take for granted the very fact that billions of us are now perpetually 'online'.

Given this reality, it has become necessary to disconnect, pause, and examine the state of the world, as recent events have unfolded to expose a choice facing humanity which will decide the fate of generations to come.

Revelations about governments reading emails, spying on video chats, and listening in on phone calls, have done nothing to halt the continued growth of these plainly compromised platforms. Our dependency on these tools appears irreversible.

The conclusion is that many have unconsciously conceded defeat in the battle that is being waged for the future of information and the control of knowledge.

Briefly examine the sheer capability of Google, for example, by no means singling out the company. Any number of web-based companies could be similarly assessed.

Nonetheless in our present world, there exists a single corporate entity -- Google -- which controls the vast majority of transnational information flows for the most advanced economies. Its reach into the daily lives of billions of citizens is unmatched, and its appetite for growth in all areas is exponential.

Google's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil", is only passively reassuring when one considers Google's venture capital group purchasing the military robot research company Boston Dynamics.

The latter development is amplified as the world witnesses the propaganda and cyber wars between the West and Russia over Crimea. In such a context we must decide to what end profit-driven web corporations such as Google can wield their unprecedented control of information flows, search results, and communications technologies.

As the preeminent internet hyperpower in 2014, Google uniquely bears the significant burden of being almost completely responsible for -- and capable of influencing -- the choice we face between one of two worlds:

The first choice is to entrench ourselves in the increasingly hostile, selectively curated and self-serving Internet nether-realm of hacking, pervasive spying, and digital thievery. The trajectory of this choice leads to the active segregation of the global commune into 'state internets' (as exists in China), recreating the walled off nationalist borders which have historically sparked widespread conflict.

The alternative is a web-based world that supplies information neutrally and universally, collaborates freely and shares legally, and is one that collects user data solely to support the transparent backbone of a renewed human condition of collective responsibility.

It is in this open world, pluralistic and non-partisan, where the Global Shapers Community thrives, by creating and facilitating opportunities for some of the brightest young leaders to work together to better the state of the world. In Part 2 of this series, we will examine how we can collectively shape the rules that govern our web-based future.

By Robert D. Onley, a Global Shaper in the Ottawa Hub.

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