Thought leaders explore future of open Internet during Aspen forum

August 13, 2014  • Elise Hu

Despite the Internet being essential to life as we know it in 2014, only a small percentage of people understand how it really works.

Without business and policy leaders who “get it,” misguided decisions about how the network is governed and regulated could mean fewer people have full, unfettered and reliable access to a tool that has opened up avenues for expression, education, economic opportunity and more.

About 30 top thinkers on Internet issues — technologists, policymakers, business and nonprofit leaders — gathered at the Aspen Institute in Colorado this week to consider the Internet’s future during the 2014 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS). What is the system we have now? How open is it, really? How can regulation of the Internet and its “pipes” help or hurt its potential?

All of this happens as Americans at large are engaged in a spirited debate about the future of the Internet. Federal regulators are set to decide how they will enforce the principle of net neutrality — or the idea that all content that comes across the Web should be treated equally, without priority for the businesses that can pay more to send it to you.

Participants imagined various hopeful and dystopian scenarios that could be possible for the Internet — systems that are completely closed and unregulated, closed and regulated, open but unregulated, open and regulated. Just deciding on a baseline — which system the Internet runs under today — was a thorny issue.

The general consensus was that the best possible scenario for the Internet is a system that’s open and available — in which it’s easy for users to understand the fundamental infrastructure, protocols are seeable and in the case of open source, changeable. But regulation of the network need not be seen as either good or bad. The question, as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it at the forum, is whether regulation “is in line with values” such as free expression and equality.

Working those out will require the leadership of many of the very people gathered at the Aspen Institute this week.

Elise Hu is a journalist at NPR and an adviser to Knight Foundation.

A full report on the FOCAS 2014 meeting will be published on the Aspen Institute site and available for download in September.