Web scholars, tech execs project a less open Internet of the future
Internet scholars and high-tech business leaders said the future of the Web probably won't be as open as it is today, where users can access any information they choose and often for free. Instead, some experts envisioned a future in which walled gardens proliferated or users called for tailored Web experiences where they were willing to pay more for certain services.
In a survey released Friday titled "The Future of the Internet" by Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 900 respondents made those and other projections about the Internet landscape of 2020.
Of the academics from MIT and NYU, economists and technologists from Cisco, Verizon and Google and several think tanks, some warned that the so-called net neutrality principle appeared at risk. That idea is that network operators such as AT&T, Comcast and even foreign governments treat all Web traffic equally, without prioritizing or charging more for particular applications. The Federal Communications Commission is crafting rules aimed at that goal. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration would fight to keep free speech and free access to information on the Internet available around the globe.
The experts in the survey differed in their view toward the future, but most noted changes were afoot:
Link Hoewing, a vice president of information technology at Verizon, described "slight differences" in the future: "What will change is that people will want to access customized solutions, use special-purpose devices like the Kindle and will have a need for better connections for various things like telemedicine. All of this will not be in sync with the end-to-end principle, but it will use the Internet architecture and provide value.”
William Luciw, an Internet consultant and former researcher for Apple and Tivo envisioned that ISPs such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable, for example, would offer more services such as Internet voice applications and video on demand to get more revenue beyond their pipes. As they do that and control the "last mile" of Internet service to the home, they would have greater power over the consumer, he said.
"This means that pricing and service offerings, availability, etc., are all under the control of the communications service provider," he said. "A recent example is Comcast purchasing NBC Universal. Now it would be at least theoretically possible for NBC content to receive special treatment on Comcast networks."
Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, noted that foreign governments "will attempt to exert more control over the Internet." The search company recently said it would withdraw from China over practices (it hasn't yet). He added, "However, I think that these will be relatively small changes, so that the Internet will remain relatively free.”
But Susan Crawford, a former economic adviser to President Obama, warned of a greater threat: “The locked-down future is more realistic as things stand now. We've got a very cautious government, an international movement towards greater control and a pliant public. I wish this wasn't the case.”
February 19, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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