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News from Ford

27 February 2014

Our Future’s Internet Strengthened Today

Our Future’s Internet Strengthened Today

Photo by Flickr user derekb.

By Jenny Toomey

The Knight News Challenge opens for applications today, looking to fund innovative ideas that strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation. For the first time, the Ford Foundation is collaborating with Knight on the Challenge, together with Mozilla. Read the official press release announcing the Challenge, a blog post about it from Knight and learn about how you can apply and participate in the conversation.

In 1964, after a visit to the World’s Fair in New York, Isaac Asimov wrote a piece for The New York Times, musing about the kind of world the 2014 fair might celebrate. Amid predictions about the ubiquity of processed algae products, life-size 3-D TVs and moving sidewalks is this bit of prescience:

“Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.”

Indeed, today we live in a world with a widening chasm between the technological haves and have-nots. For many of us, the Internet is inextricable from almost every moment of our lives—connecting us to work, family, friends and a wealth of ideas. But many still lack that crucial connection and the opportunities that come with it.

If Asimov could foresee this situation so long ago, when the possibilities of the Internet would have sounded like a dream, it’s worth asking ourselves how we might use all that we’ve learned since to make our own predictions: to figure out how to address current problems, avoid future pitfalls and ensure that the next generations of the Internet are stronger and more open than this one.

At Ford, we believe this is one of the defining challenges of our time. That’s why we’re so glad to join Knight and Mozilla in this round of the Knight News Challenge, with its focus on strengthening the Internet for free expression and innovation. This challenge is an opportunity to build on the innovations and fresh ideas that have defined the News Challenge since its inception in 2007, and in doing so to help shape the future of a technology we increasingly can’t live without.

If we want an open Internet, one that values equity while safeguarding privacy, we have a lot of work to do. What would that online space look like? How would it function? Who would control it? What can we anticipate, and what do we need to invent? I hope this challenge provokes ideas that push us to think differently about how online spaces are evolving, that help us realize an Internet where people from around the globe are able to interact and engage. I hope this challenge allows us to learn from the past but also to imagine new ways to use the characteristics of open technology to save and protect the promise of the open Internet.

When I arrived at Ford Foundation seven years ago, the initiative I worked on was called “Media and Cultural Policy.” Within a matter of weeks, it became clear that the media landscape was changing so quickly that the foundation would need to focus much more specifically on the Internet. Over these past years, the Internet has influenced the legal and policy landscape in ways that have transformed social, political, legal and economic environments. There is no escaping this change. So we can argue about whether access to the Internet is a “right” in itself, but there is no argument against the fact that access to the Internet is a precondition to accessing many of our important rights to speak, to learn, to access information and fully participate in society.

Today, the lack of clear protections for the public in this environment directly contributes to the denial of people’s rights. And so I’m pleased to say that this area of work is now an official part of the foundation’s long-standing, transformative support for human rights, and for the first time in the foundation’s history, this Internet Rights Unit will be addressing these challenges with a global perspective and focus. The potential is huge, the stakes are high, and much is riding on the infrastructure of the future. I look forward to reviewing your submissions—and working together to strengthen the Internet that we all want and need.

Jenny Toomey directs the Ford Foundation’s work on Internet Rights.

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