August 31, 2009

As Internet Turns 40, Many Fear For Its Future

As the Internet approaches its 40th birthday, a number of observers fear that the openness that has catalyzed innovation and driven its explosive evolution may be coming increasingly under threat from artificial barriers, leaving its future development none too secure.

"There is more freedom for the typical Internet user to play, to communicate, to shop"”more opportunities than ever before," Jonathan Zittrain, law professor and co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told the Associated Press.

"On the worrisome side, there are some longer-term trends that are making it much more possible (for information) to be controlled," he added.

Virulent e-mails, spam mail and an increasing abundance of savvy hackers have left network operators no choice but to erect restrictive security firewalls.  Illiberal regimes such as those in North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China, curtail access to millions of websites to their citizens.  Even private communications companies, jostling for a larger share of a competitive market, often institute business practices that may restrict consumer access to information or technology for attaining information.

No one could have fathomed such concerns in September of 1969, when a handful of scientists gathered in Len Kleinrock's lab at UCLA to observe as two massive computers exchanged a stream of senseless numbers through a long gray cable "” the first test run of the nascent Arpanet network that would become the prototype for the modern Internet.

The development of the Internet was gradual throughout most of the 1970's and 80's, known mostly only to students and professors on the campuses of technological institutes and federal employees in military and security agencies.  All that changed in the early 1990's, when a British physicist by the name of Tim Berners-Lee had the idea for the Web, a novel way of using the Internet that would allow people to more easily connect and exchange resources across broad expanses.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, experts in Internet history credit the early obscurity of the Internet for allowing researchers to experiment with and tweak the technology without hindrance.  Being able to hover below the radar of regulatory and commercial concerns for its first twenty or so years of existence gave early developers a free hand in creative experimentation.

"For most of the Internet's history, no one had heard of it," said Zittrain.  "That gave it time to prove itself functionally and to kind of take root."

When Berners-Lee decided to take his brainchild to the public in 1990, he was able to do so without going through the lengthy process of applying for government permits or wrangling with security firewalls.

The nearly immediate flourishing of innovation was more than anyone could have expected.

"Allow that open access, and a thousand flowers bloom," said Kleinrock.  "One thing about the Internet you can predict is [that] you will be surprised by applications you did not expect."

But there is growing pessimism surrounding the future continuance of that dynamic fecundity of innovation for which the Internet has become so well known.

The debate surrounding the restrictive use of software on Apple Inc's iPhone has come to epitomize the commercial factor of hampered Internet creativity.  Apple has designed their wildly popular iPhone to restrict the use of applications and programs not specifically approved by the company's corporate sector, leaving a number of critics howling that the practice is unfair to both customers and other potentially competitive communications providers.

Another contentious issue surrounds a number of Internet service providers who have begun prohibiting certain online activities that consume inordinately large chunks of bandwidth.  Comcast Corp., for example, got a slap on the wrist from the FCC last year for blocking or delaying its customers' use of certain varieties of file-sharing services.

Rather than directly interfering with access to certain sites and services, a number of other large Internet service providers have been toying the idea of placing restrictive caps on monthly data usage for their customers, charging extra fees for customers who exceed their allotted data limit much as cell phone companies bill extra for exceeding a pre-apportioned number of minutes.

Google co-founder Vint Cerf is ardently opposed to such measures, contending that they will ultimately restrict users' sense of freedom in exploring the Web.

"You are less likely to try things out.  No one wants a surprise bill at the end of the month," he told AP.

But Internet service providers are by no means the only entities impinging on the ability to surf the Web without constraint.  Internet trailblazer and entrepreneur Steve Crocker told AP that his startup company Shinkuro Inc. has struggled to maneuver through the jungle of security firewalls that are now present in every corner of the Internet.  As Shinkuro Inc. attempts to develop technology allowing different companies to collaborate through various information exchanges, they are constantly met with security blockades that make it extremely challenging if not impossible to establish direct interactions between users.

Yet, frustrating as they can be to innovators and entrepreneurs, most recognize that firewalls have evolved as a necessary evil, serving to curb the superabundance viral material and spyware now circulating around the Web.

The difficulty for Internet engineers seems to be striking just right balance between cumbersome, innovation-stifling barriers and wild-west style Internet chaos.  The ideal is to create an Internet environment that is both open and conducive to creativity, while at the same time safe.

Whether or not this ideal balance can be realistically found and maintained is something only time will tell.