The right kind of regulation can result in the right kind of change.
In 2014, marking the 25th anniversary of the world wide web, the Pew Research Centre (PRC) canvassed 2,588 experts and technology builders about how they saw the internet and digital world in 2025. Most agreed that the changes would be profound; the internet would be omnipresent, “worn” by almost everyone; human activities would be transformed, at work and at leisure; business would be disrupted at an increasing rate.
Many respondents also articulated their fears: the opening of greater digital divides as gains are unevenly distributed; threats to privacy as companies and governments gather more data; countries segmenting the internet into “national networks” in vain attempts to respond to rapid change. Now add to this the list of threats we are today so frequently discussing – cybersecurity, fake news, the loss of jobs to robots, algorithms creating financial instability – and the turbulent, often pugilistic state of world politics and, unsurprisingly, one could opine that there is an overwhelming sense of insecurity, apprehension and uncertainty; that, in our existential angst, the future might be worse than the past. And even the word ‘disruption’ can bring with it pejorative implications. Much of this promotes the sense that these changes, inevitable as they are, will simply be “done to us”.
Most observers agree that societies in general, and governments in particular, respond too slowly to emerging change. But the advantage this time is that, as the PRC study highlights, we really have no excuse. And we know, from more recent PRC research, as well as studies in Europe, that most people feel that their lives have improved substantially through digital technology, regardless of their economic status. Amongst many other benefits, they cite connectedness, ease of transactions and the availability of information. There is no reason to suppose this tendency will not continue. It’s counter-intuitive; life is getting more complicated.
Unarguably change on the scale that we are now seeing brings with it huge uncertainty and dramatic new challenges. But, for those of us steeped in the regulatory world, it’s important to remember that, in order to shape the future, we have to embrace it. As one commentator puts it, “fears for the worst outcomes mustn’t blind us to the opportunities for the best”. While we continue to debate, reflect and ultimately act, we need to stay focussed on this: that a ‘best future’ is entirely within our reach.
That’s something that I think we can all be cautiously optimistic about.
President, International Institute of Communications