I’ve found myself giving cautionary talks on the future of the Internet, or possible futures, plural – the real danger that the Internet and the World Wide Web that operates on it will become less open, perhaps become fragmented, balkanized into closed networks that no longer cooperate, filled with walled gardens with various filters and constraints, and no longer be a platform with low barriers to entry and assurance that if you connect something, anyone anywhere in the world will have access to it. The Internet would no longer be the powerful engine for innovation and communication it has been.
Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, writes about this in Scientific American, saying that some of the web’s “successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.”
If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.
Read Berners-Lee’s important longer piece, “Long Live the Web.”
My next scheduled talk about the future of the Internet is January 5 at noon, at Link Coworking.
“Net neutrality” and “freedom to connect” might be loaded or vague terminologies; the label “Open Internet” is clearer, more effective, no way misleading. A group of Internet experts and pioneers submitted a paper to the FCC that defines the Open Internet and explains how it differs from networks that are dedicated to specialized services, and why that distinction is imortant. It’s a general purpose network for all, and can’t be appreciated (or properly regulated) unless this point and its implications are well understood. I signed on (late) to the paper, which is freely available at Scribd, and which is worth reading and disseminating even among people who don’t completely get it. I think the meaning and relevance of the distinction will sink in, even with those who don’t have deep knowledge of the Internet and, more generally, computer networking. The key point is that “the Internet should be delineated from specialized services specifically based on whether network providers treat the transmission of packets in special ways according to the applications those packets support. Transmitting packets without regard for application, in a best efforts manner, is at the very core of how the Internet provides a general purpose platform that is open and conducive to innovation by all end users.”
The Obama presidency hopefully starts today, not January 20 – and it’s time for all of us to start real work on a future that’s not just survivable, but thrivable. My particular interests are social technology and sustainability, and on the tech side, I’m particularly interested in the ambitious plan set forth in Obama’s white paper, “Connecting and Empowering All Americans through Technology and Innovation” (linked as pdf). The doc incorporates some of the best thinking about where we should focus…
Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Information through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets – including a clueful paragraph on protecting the openness of the Internet and another on encouraging diversity in media ownership.
Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy. Tals about online tools for open government, and “bringing government into the 21st Century,” using tech “to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks.” To that end, he wants to appoint a Chief Technology Officer. (D’oh – you mean we didn’t already have one?)
Deploy a Modern Communications Infrastructure – great news for the “Freedom to Connect” crowd, including yours truly. “Barack Obama believes that America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access,” so he’s going to push for a redefinition of what constitutes broadband in the U.S., i.e. fatter pipes. He also wants to open spectrum for more and better wireless deployment.
Employ Technology and Innovation to Solve Our Nation’s Most Pressing Problems, such as lowering health care costs by doing more to integrate records and facilitate digital claims processing. Healthcare systems are a patchwork mess, so this will be a huge challenge – it’s definitely time to take it on.
Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment. Those of us who are interested in clean energy development know that it’s all about technology – we replace resource extraction with knowledge development and engineering to support greater efficiencies as well as the development of new forms of energy. Obama has several items for supporting the development of the clean energy sector, and for upgrading education so that our schools will produce more science and engineering graduates, and “[tap] the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce…so that we can retain and
grow jobs requiring 21st century skills rather than forcing employers to find skilled workers abroad.” He’ll also modernize public safety networks.
Improve America’s Competitiveness. “Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.” Obama proposes making the R&D tax credit permanent, reforming immigration, doing more to promote American business abroad, ensuring competitive markets, protecting American intellectual property abroad and at home, and (big one) reforming the patent system. “By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.”
This is a lot to accomplish, but vision, attitude, and powerful intention will go a long way in getting us where we need to be after eight years of backward thinking and indifference. Personally, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and plowing ahead with the the two areas of focus I’ve had for years – on the social web and on sustainability, both well-addressed by Obama’s plan – and I’m feeling invigorated knowing that the new administration will be supporting, not obstructing, progress in both areas.