An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Thirty years ago, the Internet was a network that primarily delivered email among academic and government employees. Today, it is rapidly evolving into a control system for our physical environment through the Internet of Things, as mobile and wearable technology more tightly integrate the Internet into our everyday lives.

How will the future Internet be shaped by the design choices that we are making today? Could the Internet evolve into a fundamentally different platform than the one to which we have grown accustomed? As an alternative to big data, what would it mean to make ubiquitously collected data safely available to individuals as small data? How could we attain both security and privacy in the face of trends that seem to offer neither? And what role do public institutions, such as libraries, have in an environment that becomes more privatized by the day?

As guest-editors David D. Clark (Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) and Yochai Benkler (Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University) have observed, the Internet “has become increasingly privately owned, commercial, productive, creative, and dangerous.”

Reproduction of a slide from an NSA presentation on “Google Cloud Exploitation,” an operation of the MUSCULAR surveillance project. The slide is part of the large cache of NSA documents disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2013.
Map showing NSA hack of Google's private server
Reproduction of a slide from an NSA presentation on “Google Cloud Exploitation,” an operation of the MUSCULAR surveillance project. The slide is part of the large cache of NSA documents disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

The Contingent Internet

The technical nature of the Internet and the structure of its ecosystem is highly contingent on design decisions made at the birth of the network. David Clark explores these decisions, and forecasts design decisions the Internet will face in the near future, including their profound political, economic, social, and technological consequences.

Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power

One of the most remarkable features of the early Internet was the success of anarchies as functioning organizational bodies. But once the Internet’s massive political and economic potential became apparent, governments and corporations targeted Internet control points as a means of securing power over the Internet and exploiting profits from its uses, putting at risk the free and democratic promise of the early Internet.

Edge Networks & Devices for the Internet of Things

The Internet is fast becoming the Internet of Things, incorporating hundreds of billions (or trillions) of devices that can sense or control myriad aspects of our lives. Existing Internet protocols, however, are insufficient to meet this demand, and our move toward the Internet of Things will overturn fundamental assumptions we have held about Internet architecture.

Reassembling Our Digital Selves

The explosive growth of personal sensors (like Fitbit products) and digital trackers has stirred enormous interest in harnessing and exploiting small data: the digital traces we create in our day-to-day lives. But who owns this data, and how can users unlock it to create actionable recommendations about health, productivity, and lifestyle—while preserving individual security and privacy?

Authors Deborah Estrin and Ari Juels

Choices: Privacy & Surveillance in a Once & Future Internet

With increasing government and corporate surveillance, as well as an Internet ecosystem funded by the sale of user information for targeted advertising, user privacy is an endangered concept. This essay explores the ways users can protect their privacy as well as the security of their Internet activities, and identifies the economic tradeoffs that result.

Author Susan Landau

As the Pirates Become CEOs: The Closing of the Open Internet

Once an ecstatic—if chaotic—space of open communication and creativity, the Internet today is experienced by most users as a walled gardens of mobile apps and platforms, including Facebook and Google. What potential do these closed systems extinguish, and have we lost the open Internet for good?

Design Choices for Libraries in the Digital-Plus Era

The design evolution of the American public library is a microcosm of our society-wide debate about digital access points to knowledge, public versus commercial institutions, and civic participation. John Palfrey makes a passionate case for the role of public libraries in a functioning democracy, and outlines the ways in which libraries must adapt to meet the (increasingly digital) needs of their patrons.