The Year of the Future

What will the internet be like in the future? It looks like 2012 is set to be a critical year for internet development.

Image: byhdzimmermannunder CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

If there's one thing everyone seemed to agree on last week at Nominet's annual Internet policy conference, it's that this year, 2012, is a crucial one in the development of the Internet.

The discussion had two purposes. One is to feed into Nominet's policy-making as the body in charge of .uk, in which capacity it's currently grappling with questions such as how to respond to law enforcement demands to disappear domains. The other, which is the kind of exercise net.wars particularly enjoys and that was pioneered at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference (next one spring 2013, in Washington, DC), is to peer into the future and try to prepare for it.

Vint Cerf, now Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, outlined some of that future, saying that this year, 2012, will see more dramatic changes to the Internet than anything since 1983. He had a list:

- The deployment of better authentication in the form of DNSSec;

- New certification regimes to limit damage in the event of more cases like 2011's Diginotar hack;

- internationalized domain names;

- The expansion of new generic top-level domains;

- The switch to IPv6 Internet addressing, which happens on June 6;

- Smart grids;

- The Internet of things: cars, light bulbs, surfboards (!), and anything else that can be turned into a sensor by implanting an RFID chip.

Cerf paused to throw in an update on his long-running project the interplanetary Internet he's been thinking about since 1998 (TXT).

"It's like living in a science fiction novel," he said yesterday as he explained about overcoming intense network lag by using high-density laser pulses. The really cool bit: repurposing space craft whose scientific missions have been completed to become part of the interplanetary backbone. Not space junk: network nodes-in-waiting.

The contrast to Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and the creative industries at the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, couldn't have been more marked. He summed up the Internet's governance problem as the "three Ps": pornography, privacy, and piracy. It's nice rhetorical alliteration, but desperately narrow. Vaizey's characterization of 2012 as a critical year rests on the need to consider the UK's platform for the upcoming Internet Governance Forum leading to 2014's World Information Technology Forum. When Vaizey talks about regulating with a "light touch", does he mean the same things we do?

I usually place the beginning of the who-governs-the-Internet argument at 1997, the first time the engineers met rebellion when they made a technical decision (revamping the domain name system). Until then, if the pioneers had an enemy it was governments, memorably warned off by John Perry Barlow's 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. After 1997, it was no longer possible to ignore the new classes of stakeholders, commercial interests and consumers.

I'm old enough as a Netizen – I've been online for more than 20 years – to find it hard to believe that the Internet Governance Forum and its offshoots do much to change the course of the Internet's development: while they're talking, Google's self-drive cars rack up 200,000 miles on San Francisco's busy streets with just one accident (the car was rear-ended; not their fault) and Facebook sucks in 800 million users (if it were a country, it would be the world's third most populous nation).

But someone has to take on the job. It would be morally wrong for governments, banks, and retailers to push us all to transact with them online if they cannot promise some level of service and security for at least those parts of the Internet that they control. And let's face it: most people expect their governments to step in if they're defrauded and criminal activity is taking place, offline or on, which is why I thought Barlow's declaration absurd at the time

Richard Allan, director of public policy for Facebook EMEA – or should we call him Lord Facebook? – had a third reason why 2012 is a critical year: at the heart of the Internet Governance Forum, he said, is the question of how to handle the mismatch between global Internet services and the cultural and regulatory expectations that nations and individuals bring with them as they travel in cyberspace. In Allan's analogy, the Internet is a collection of off-shore islands like Iceland's Surtsey, which has been left untouched to develop its own ecosystem.

Should there be international standards imposed on such sites so that all users know what to expect? Such a scheme would overcome the Balkanization problem that erupts when sites present a different face to each nation's users and the censorship problem of blocking sites considered inappropriate in a given country. But if that's the way it goes, will nations be content to aggregate the most open standards or insist on the most closed, lowest-common-denominator ones?

I'm not sure this is a choice that can be made in any single year – they were asking this same question at CFP in 1994 – but if this is truly the year in which it's made, then yes, 2012 is a critical year in the development of the Internet.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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