Web Thinkers Warn of Culture Clash

The Internet’s potential for promoting expression and empowering citizens is under threat from corporate and government policies that clash with the medium’s long-standing culture of openness, some leading Internet thinkers warned.

The Internet’s potential for promoting expression and empowering citizens is under threat from corporate and government policies that clash with the medium’s long-standing culture of openness, some leading Internet thinkers warned.

At the annual Internet Society conference this week in Arlington, the engineers who built the Internet and many of the policymakers who follow its development urged caution as governments try to exert control and businesses look to maximize profits.

“We’re at a turning point in the evolution of the Internet,” said William J. Drake, a fellow at the University of Maryland. A wrong turn means “robbing it of its real democratic potential.”

Vint Cerf, co-developer of the Internet’s basic communications protocols, worries that big, traditional businesses could gain unprecedented control through manipulating the high-speed services that are delivered over cable and phone networks.

Companies are inhibiting innovation, Cerf said, by letting users receive information faster than they can send it.

“That leads to a lot of peculiar effects,” he said. Two people “could each receive high-quality video but can’t send it. They can’t have high-quality videoconferencing.”

Cerf is a co-founder of the Internet Society, an international, nonprofit organization of Internet architects and professionals devoted to maintaining the Internet’s viability and addressing the issues it confronts.

With governments and businesses taking a growing interest in the Internet, the conference’s theme is “Internet Crossroads: Where Technology and Policy Intersect.”

The TCP/IP communications protocols that Cerf and Robert Kahn developed in the 1970s favored open standards, neutrality and flexibility over proprietary techniques, a development that later allowed personal computers to connect and innovations such as the World Wide Web to develop.

That openness is increasingly threatened by “profit motives of corporations and control issues of governments,” said Eric E. Schmidt, chief executive of Google Inc. He pointed to the current “balkanization” of instant messaging, where a lack of standards prevents America Online users from communicating with people on rival services.

Steve Crocker, an Internet pioneer who promoted open protocols at the standards-setting Internet Engineering Task Force, said today’s decisions “could stunt the Internet to where it becomes a mechanism for delivering entertainment, ads and conducting consumer-oriented business for large players.”

Meanwhile, proposals by some service providers to adjust access fees based on broadband consumers’ data traffic volume could inhibit the development of video and other data-intensive applications, said David J. Farber, a University of Pennsylvania professor and former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission.

Farber is hopeful, though, that consumers will resist –

even if a monopoly high-speed service provider tries to abandon long-standing flat-rate pricing.

In terms of government regulation, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig warned of making knee-jerk decisions without fully understanding their impact. His chief complaint: Copyright protections aimed at combating theft that also curtail legitimate uses.

Reed E. Hundt, former FCC chairman, said government could kill short-range wireless networking through rules such as banning retail sales of products that use unlicensed portions of the spectrum. He said Taiwan and other countries already restrict such sales.

But many participants said government agencies and businesses can’t afford to wait on issues such as privacy, junk e-mail and copyright controls.

“Until we reach a major breakthrough [on privacy protections and authentication], I wonder how much real progress we can make in using the Internet as a trusted vehicle for commerce,” said Keith Besgrove, a manager at Australia’s National Office for the Information Economy.

Marian Grubben of the European Union, whose parliament has passed legislation requiring companies to obtain permission before sending marketing e-mail to Europeans, said a failure to act would impede mobile services, to which spam is migrating.

One issue governments are still grappling with is how to apply national laws to a medium that knows no boundaries.

Policymakers need to tread carefully, said Wolfgang Kleinwachter, professor of international communication at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. Going too far one way could restrict freedom and choice, he said, while the opposite could foster organized crime.

Michael Nelson, an executive with International Business Machines Corp. who is conference co-chairman, said bad policy decisions today could stunt the Internet’s growth.

“We are actually at a point where we can make some very wrong decisions, and the Net will just kind of become like any other industry,” he said.

© 2002 The Associated Press

Author: Anick Jesdanun

News Service: Associated Press

URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A20577-2002Jun20?language=printer

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