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10 ways the internet has changed in 26 years

Digital adoption continues to be propelled by rural India, where the number of internet users surged to 299 million last year, thereby, marking a growth of 13% year-on-year.Premium
Digital adoption continues to be propelled by rural India, where the number of internet users surged to 299 million last year, thereby, marking a growth of 13% year-on-year.

  • India went online on 15 August 1995. Here’s the good, bad and ugly of what ensued
  • Surveillance has become a contentious issue. The Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, likely to be introduced next year, will lay down the rules for accessing and using citizens’ data in India

NEW DELHI : When the internet was born a little over 60 years ago, it was used mainly by the defence sector and by a few educational institutions before the web browser made it public-friendly. Even when Indian users got their first taste of the public internet 26 years ago, surfing was almost like crawling—very unlike the 4G speed that many of us are accustomed to today.

For digital natives, the internet is akin to electricity. Their lives revolve around it. Companies have used its power to do business from anywhere with anyone, and at any time. Just imagine how markedly different our experience could have been, had there been no internet?

That said, one should not surf with rose-tinted glasses. Apps and browsers in our smartphones and other internet-enabled devices track our location constantly, spy on us, eavesdrop on our conversations, influence our behaviour, and can even make us believe fake stories and manipulated speeches. Hackers unleash malware to infect our computers, tablets and smartphones and remotely steal our data, or even delete it. Further, governments periodically monitor our online habits, and even ‘kill’ the internet by shutting it down, ostensibly in the name of national security.

 

Need for speed
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Need for speed

It’s hard to fathom the long-term impact of these emerging changes. But to mark the anniversary of India’s tryst with the world wide web, here are 10 trends that offer a framework for understanding the changes wrought by the internet.

Internet boosts the world economy

There’s a direct correlation between internet penetration and a country’s gross domestic product or GDP. A 2017 study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and the Broadband India Forum noted that an increase of 17% in internet traffic accounted for a rise of 7 trillion in India’s GDP—contributing 5.6% to the nation’s GDP in 2015-16. The internet’s contribution to the GDP is projected to grow to 16% or 36 trillion by 2020, half of which would be driven by apps.

According to the same study, a 10% rise in total internet traffic and mobile internet traffic can push India’s GDP by 3.3% and 1.3%, respectively, as against the global average of 1.3% and 0.7%. This is good news for a mobile-first internet nation like India.

It is shaping the future of work

Government-enforced quarantines and lockdowns during the pandemic have led to many changes in the workplace across the world. Thanks to the internet, many employers today are comfortable with their staff working from anywhere. Thousands of businesses are using collaboration and video-conferencing tools such as Zoom, Teams, WeChat Work, Webex and Hangouts Meet.

Schools and universities, too, have adapted to online learning. Many firms have also switched to virtual events due to safety concerns. Doctors today are diagnosing patients via phone calls and video conferencing calls, which is helping them reach out to more patients. The pandemic is, thus, not only transforming the workplace but also giving us a glimpse of how the future of work may shape up.

The quest for faster internet

The growing use of remote working tools has put pressure on the worldwide internet ecosystem. According to Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, the average mobile broadband download speed in India dropped to 10.15 megabits per second (Mbps) in March from 11.83 Mbps in February. The average speed dropped to 8.7 Mbps during the week from March 23 to 29, right after the pandemic-driven lockdowns began. Fortunately, the internet infrastructure has held up better than expected. The June 2021 version of the same report cited above said the average download speed on mobile broadband grew to 17.84 Mbps, while fixed broadband speed stood at 58.17 Mbps. India, however, still ranks 122nd in terms of mobile internet speed and 70th when it comes to fixed broadband. If India aspires to be a leading digital nation, it needs more speed.

We also need more security and privacy

The pandemic forced companies to allow their employees to work from home. However, “the rapid shift to remote work witnessed a tremendous disruption of security programs. Organizations were focused on getting online, and security became an afterthought," notes Prashant Bhatkal, security software sales leader, IBM Technology Sales, India and South Asia. According to IBM’s cost of data breach report, India recorded a 17.85% jump in the average total cost of data breaches to a massive 16.5 crore this year as compared to 2019-20.

Even our privacy is at stake. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based non-profit for digital rights, has opposed everything from vaccine passports to contact tracing apps and surveillance cameras that use facial recognition and thermal imaging on the grounds of privacy invasion. Moreover, the recent revelation that the stealth software Pegasus, sold by Israeli surveillance company NSO, was allegedly responsible for global surveillance on human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and many others across the world, including India, has also primed the need for a strong privacy ecosystem in India. Of course, internet users can protect their privacy by using networks such as Tor (The Onion Routing) or virtual private networks (VPNs) that mask your IP address (the location from where you’re surfing the internet). But not everyone is that tech-savvy.

The rise and rise of ‘DeepFakes’

Artificial intelligence-powered algorithms known as ‘Deep Fakes’ can make fake videos appear very real. Researchers have also trained algorithms to listen to voices and generate the facial expression and body of a non-existent person. In early May 2019, for instance, an altered video of US house speaker Nancy Pelosi made her speech appear slow and slurred. On 11 June, artistes Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny created a deep fake of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, making him say things he never said, and uploaded it on Instagram. A month later, two Facebook engineers—Sean Vasquez and Mike Lewis—announced the creation of AI MelNet that clones the voice of famous people like Donald Trump, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. These ‘Deep Fakes’ coupled with fake news on the internet can easily alter our perception of reality, making us believe that the unreal is real and vice versa.

AI-powered algorithms rule the roost

Let’s assume you’re browsing the internet for a specific smartphone on an e-commerce site. Not only will you find recommendations of similar smartphones and mobile accessories at the bottom of the page, but you will instantaneously find advertisements of smartphones and mobile accessories popping all over the place when you surf on other websites. These are driven by AI-powered algorithms that can alter behaviour on the internet and influence decisions. They make recommendations based on location, watched videos, user interactions, reading history, chats and posts on social media.

Of course, it’s helpful to become aware of new products and services online but the element of choice and consent-based recommendation is still limited on the internet. Smart algorithms can be extremely helpful too. They auto-correct sentences on email, filter out spam, refine web searches, and assist in voice chats.

Smart algorithms need to be kept in check

Algorithms also have a dark side. They can induce racial bias in tweets and Facebook posts, spread false stories on social media networks and online sites, help unscrupulous developers create disturbing AI-powered ‘Deep Fakes’ of prominent individuals and celebrities, and spread hate speech by manipulating audio and video files on the internet. And that’s not all. Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 or GPT-3 can produce human-like text. Put simply, this natural language algorithm could potentially write an entire book on its own, and we would not know the difference. To be fair, the internet and smart algorithms have a symbiotic relationship—both need each other to be effective.

Banks, governments, manufacturing firms and healthcare service providers use smart algorithms to provide invaluable services. In fact, even the covid-19 virus was first spotted with the help of AI algorithms, and it’s the latter that is helping pharma firms in drug discovery and vaccines. Hence, we will need to devise policies and regulations that will help us extract the best out of these smart algorithms, instead of them overpowering us.

AI, Indian languages help bridge the digital divide

English is still the dominant language on the internet, at a little over 60% of webpages. Whereas Hindi at 0.1 % is a just a whisper in cyberspace, according to the World Wide Web Technology surveys. That said, language barriers can be overcome online with the help of the likes of Google Translate, Facebook AI’s open-source multilingual machine translation (MMT) model, and Microsoft Translator.

Overcoming the language barrier is critical for the internet’s growth in India. It can help bridge the urban-rural digital divide. Internet users grew by 4% in urban India to 323 million users in 2020, but digital adoption continues to be propelled by rural India, where internet users surged to 299 million, clocking a 13% growth, according to the IAMAI KantarICUBE 2020 report published this June. Given that rural India may soon have more internet users than their urban counterparts, vernacular, voice, and video “will emerge as the game changers for the digital ecosystem over the next few years", notes the report.

Internet shutdowns and surveillance

Governments and law enforcement agencies typically regulate access to the internet in the name of national security. India saw 83 shutdowns in 2020 and had already seen 29 in 2021 so far, according to the Software Freedom and Law Center’s Internet (SFLC) shutdowns tracker. The shutdown imposed in the Kashmir region, after the abrogation of Article 370 in October 2019, was restored only after over 15 months, the SFLC noted.

Surveillance has also become a contentious issue on the internet. India is likely to introduce the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill next year—a critical piece of regulation that is expected to lay down the rules on how governments and corporations can access and use citizens’ data. This is the need of the hour.

Will the internet eventually split?

Censorship, shutdowns, and surveillance all point out to the un-advertized split on the internet. This paradoxical trend is also called ‘Splinternet’—an internet that obeys different rules in some countries, similar to how nations follow their own regulations.

China’s Great Firewall is a well-known example of this trend since it controls the data that flows within its borders. North Korea’s Kwangmyong also has a similar arrangement. The European Union’s internet regulations are another example of geopolitics on the internet. Going forward, these borders are only expected to increase, as countries such as India also formulate laws to regulate data within the country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leslie D'Monte

Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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