Information sovereignty is the emerging trend of SXSW 2014

Nico Abbruzzese is global director of creative technology at Metalworks by Maxus

imageAt SXSW, you can always count on a handful of hot topics to emerge from the ocean of diverse, engaging content that makes this conference so unique. The cream of these themes quickly gathers pace across the geek-out grapevine, guiding the colourful, often inebriated conversations of the SXSW Interactive ‘Digital Nation”.

Invariably, these conversations will come to define the latest buzzwords we’ll see popping up in trend decks and upcoming “The Future of….” speeches soon to be heard at conferences around the world. To be at SxSW is to be at the forefront of that wave. That’s why I come! After all, we love leaning into change.

Before the Texan dust had barely settled from our landing, it became apparent that this year’s first emerging theme was to be the hotly debated topic of Privacy and Information Security. The late inclusion of secret virtual appearances by Edward Snowden and wikileaks’ dark knight Julian Assange cranked up the buzz level to further sensationalise this critical topic.

An internet divided

The first panel session to tackle the theme was lead, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, co-authors of The New Digital Age. They painted a picture of a potential near-future scenario of Information Sovereignty and balkanization – or the subdivision of the internet into separate enclaves.

As to be expected, Google flaunted its thought leadership around the issue, addressing it with a technological and policy-based solution, thereby cushioning itself from the hot bed of conversation.

In the context of the internet, Information Sovereignty is a new concept. As the ‘statelessness’ nature of the worldwide web dictates that there are no frontiers on information, the concept of an information “passport” could profoundly revolutionise the way we access the internet. I’d hate to imagine a future where each of us will require a visa in an internet passport to consume Wikipedia-type information.

This is only the beginning

Clearly this debate is only in its infancy and the industry is far from finding a resolution or common ground. As we’ve experienced in recent times through the wiki-leaks phenomena and the NSA European scandal, Information Sovereignty is far too complex an issue to be solved by a firewall and censorship alone. Several critical questions remain, at this juncture, unclear. Who actually owns information? And who has the right to distribute and share this information, potentially threatening the safety and lives of individuals everywhere?

Among the strong arguments presented to the SXSW crowd was a call for the person consuming information to be the owner of the information itself. Equally, as some information could potentially bring down governments or institutions faster than an earthquake, the role of ownership clearly presents a far more complex problem to navigate. Information sovereignty is the next frontier of the internet; let’s keep front of mind that people are going to expect more of a return on sharing personal data moving forwards, not less.

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