A new report by the United Nations says some 2.7 billion people are expected to be connected to the internet by the end of this year. That is 40 percent of the world's population. But is the world aware of what is at stake?

The internet has grown to become a vast information and communications network, used as much by the state as businesses and individuals and all manner of groups and organisations. It has a global reach growing steadily by the day, but there are growing concerns too about state surveillance, security, privacy and exploitation.

Wealthier nations will continue to have a great advantage because they can continue to pay for both the infrastructure and also the brain power that creates the wonderful ecosystem of applications and technologies that we have come to enjoy.

Gilad Rosner, a digital security expert and researcher at Nottingham University

Events have moved as fast as the internet itself. In 1995, there were just 16 million users, or 0.4 percent of the global population.

By the end of 2013, 40 percent of the population will be online - according to the UN.

But access is far from universal. The UN report says 4.4 billion people still have no access to the internet and 90 percent of those who are not online live in developing countries.

Two of the driving forces behind the growth of the internet are price and the ability to get online, on the go.

Over the past four years, the UN says the average cost of internet access has dropped by more than 80 percent.

And mobile internet plans are even cheaper, making it the most popular way to connect. By the end of this year, the UN estimates there will be some 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions - almost as many people as there are on the planet.

But there are concerns too, over privacy and identity theft, access to pornography and online grooming.

And revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden have raised new concerns about state surveillance. Leaked documents revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US had been working with technology companies to influence the way data is encrypted online.

Encryption protects things like online transactions and email. In some cases, the NSA inserted so-called backdoors, to give them access to private communications. When not working with companies, the NSA has hacked into their servers to get encryption keys. That has given them access to some of the world's most widely used methods of encryption.

We also learned about PRISM, which is said to allow the NSA direct access to the servers of companies like Google and Facebook.

The internet is consistently ranked as one of the top inventions of the 20th century, but how safe is the internet? What are the dangers of a world online? And can internet providers and the state be trusted to protect users?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, discusses with guests: Toby Shapshak, the editor and publisher of Stuff magazine, and a specialist in innovation and technology in Africa; Nino Kader, the CEO of the Qatar-based social media agency Spark Digital, and an authority on Google; and Gilad Rosner, a digital security expert and researcher at Nottingham University.

"People are now more aware of tracking. They are now looking at ways to use technology to defeat the technology. They are doing more secure encryption to feel a little better about whether or not they are going to be tracked."

Nino Kader, the CEO of the Qatar-based social media agency Spark Digital

Source: Al Jazeera