The Internet Is Far From Broken

Scaremongering gets us nowhere. The Internet is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself, says Sophie Curtis

Several high-profile industry figures have been getting in a flap this week about the future of the Internet and the question of how to accommodate an ever-increasing user base while preserving net neutrality.

The UK’s culture minister Ed Vaizey put his foot in his mouth on 17 November when he suggested that Internet service providers could charge heavy bandwidth users such as Google and Skype for “fast lane” access to their content. This “light regulation”, he said, would bring in additional revenue streams for ISPs and help pay for the expansion of online services.

His comments were met with an outraged response from advocates of net neutrality, (the principle of treating all Internet traffic as equal), who warned that prioritising one type of traffic over another would damage the ‘free market’ nature of the Internet.

“Removing net neutrality is likely to reduce innovation and reduce people’s ability to exercise their freedom of speech,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. The BBC’s head of future media and technology Erik Huggers also said a neutral Internet was “crucial to the growth of our digital economy,” and Labour MP Tom Watson was quick to table an Early Day Motion in Parliament, calling for further political debate on the issue.

An open Internet?

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before Vaizey started backtracking, claiming that his comments had been misinterpreted. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Vaizey said: “My first and overriding priority is an open Internet where consumers have access to all legal content. Should the Internet develop in a way that was detrimental to consumer interests we would seek to intervene.”

Vaizey claimed to align his ideas on net neutrality with the founder of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee. However, his take on the matter differs somewhat from that of Berners-Lee, who is reported as saying: “We have discussed it on the phone but I can’t say, yet, that we’re entirely in line.”

[Editors’s Note: They talked ON THE PHONE? Surely this should have been by email, Skype or IP videoconference!]

Meanwhile, Berners-Lee warned in a Scientific American essay published this week that the web is being threatened by the success of sites such as Facebook and iTunes, which wall off information from the rest of the world. He described each site as a silo, which retains data while making it difficult for other sites to access it.

“These closed, ‘walled gardens,’ no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing web market outside their gates,” said Berners-Lee. “If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.”

The Internet will adapt

While the future development of the Internet is an important topic for debate, much of what has been said this week sounds a lot like paranoid scaremongering. The Internet has proved itself to be incredibly adaptable and resilient over time, and the suggestion that the Internet will somehow become ‘broken’ because of these changes is, quite frankly, nonsense.

This indeed was the opinion of Frederic Donck, Director of the Internet Society’s European Bureau, who delivered a keynote speech at the Paradiso Workshop in Brussels today (23 November) on “Understanding the interaction between Internet and societal developments”.

While acknowledging future threats to the Internet – including increased government control, evolving security threats, the lack of privacy and limited IPv6 deployment – Donck refused to accept that the Internet is on its last legs.

“The future Internet will not be shaped by network architectures but by our imaginations, our aspirations, our very personal visions of the future and what the Internet means to us individually and collectively,” said Donck. “The future Internet is what we, as users, make it.”

While his hyperbolic language detracts somewhat from the point, Donck’s message is a fundamental one. Those Internet pioneers, such as Berners-Lee, who worked on the various projects that later became the Internet, understood the unpredictable and dynamic nature of innovation. They created a space where ideas and content could be shared freely and openly.

The Internet will inevitably evolve and change shape over the next few years, but it will only stop being open and flexible when society stops using it as a source of knowledge, and a tool for empowerment and opportunity.