Insights from the Knight News Challenge: What does it mean to strengthen the Internet?

technology / Article

Priya Kumar is a researcher and writer who unlocks the stories in data. She recently served as a reader for the Knight News Challenge. Photo credit: Flickr user Damon Styer

We access the Internet through computers, mobile devices, tablets, eyeglasses and even fridges. How do we strengthen something that seems ubiquitous, so tightly integrated into our daily experience that it feels unnecessary to distinguish between “online” and “real” life?

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The variety of projects this Knight News Challenge received speaks to how broadly the Internet touches our lives. We use it to buy products, learn new information, share our views and connect with others.

Many projects offered novel ways to engage in these activities, but the ones that stood out to me went beyond using the Internet to do something interesting. They proposed an idea that improved the experience of logging on; they equipped people to take advantage of the Internet’s unique abilities to store and send data quickly and to reach large numbers of people. They defined a target audience and described what demand exists for their proposal. They made me think, “We as Internet users need this.”

As a reader for the challenge I reviewed about 90 of the more than 650 submissions. The best projects I saw aligned with one of four categories:

  • Internet access
  • Education
  • Improving the architecture or experience of the Web
  • Promoting or preserving online freedom of expression

These themes broadened my interpretation of what it means to strengthen the Internet. Last summer I researched and wrote about global Internet censorship and online freedom of expression for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. I also followed news coverage of the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance practices and hoped the news would help spur conversations about our relationship with the digital footprints we leave online. This particular Knight News Challenge represented one way to jump-start not only conversation, but also action.

I expected to see many projects that focused on securing online communication or enabling people to use the Internet without fear of retribution. And the majority of projects did reflect these themes. But in reading proposals about the need for greater Internet access and digital literacy, I realized that strengthening the Internet means considering those who aren’t on it as much as those who already use it.

Strengthening the Internet is also about broadening its user base. People must be able to reach the Internet before they can use it to enhance their own lives and contribute their ideas to the world. In addition, they must develop the skills necessary to take full advantage of the Web. The education-related projects I saw aimed to help individuals in underserved communities as well as young people learn how to accomplish tasks online, find and vet information online, use social media or write code, empowering them to participate in and shape the Web.

As I originally expected, strengthening the Internet means making it easier for people to communicate securely, collaborate with each other, locate information online or collect and analyze data. The Internet is a distributed network of servers to which anyone can connect and send or receive information. Many projects harnessed these defining characteristics of the Internet to help users combat such challenges as surveillance or link rot (e.g., clicking a link and seeing an error).

Anyone can use the Internet, making it perhaps the most powerful communication technology we’ve ever seen. This, of course, can be discomfiting to people in positions of power, some of whom filter the Internet in their countries, block access to particular websites or punish people for information they post online. A stronger Internet is a platform where people can voice their thoughts without fear of persecution. Many projects sought to protect this right to free expression.

Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web did not exist and the Internet remained an obscure network that connected research labs. By the end of 2014, nearly 3 billion people will use the Internet. Judging by the creativity of the hundreds of Knight News Challenge submissions, I’m optimistic that the billions more who go online over the next 30 years will enjoy a dynamic, vibrant space in which to learn and grow.

On June 23, Knight Foundation will award $2.75 million, including $250,000 from the Ford Foundation, to support the most compelling ideas around the News Challenge question: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? Visit newschallenge.org to review the semifinalists.

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