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Apocalypse interrupted

We seem to have survived - again. This does not mean the *Maya* were wrong: as The Skeptic's Dictionary points out, their Long Count Calendar was coming to an end, not the world. >/p>.

Yet predictions of apocalypse, Internet-style, are still all around us, largely inspired by the recently concluded - or imploded - World Congress on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The Guardian's John Naughton, for example, ponders the Net's ownership by politicians and big corporations. As he says (and as I wrote in New Scientist), we will not know for at least a generation, maybe two, whether the Internet will, like radio and television before it, become a closed, controlled medium. It is that specter that this column and the many digital rights organizations argue against.

In that article, Naughton refers to John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberpace. It's interesting that there's a sort of revisionism going on about this document. Naughton says, "We nodded approvingly".

Maybe he did, but at the time Barlow's Declaration was widely viewed with embarrassment, even by his peers in the Internet punditry business. Quite apart from the hyperbole, it was obviously wrong to think that governments could be kept entirely out of the Internet - and it was also obvious that when it came to ecommerce and protection from fraud and crime, their citizens would demand government action.

A little more history: the Declaration was written in response to a very specific threat: it was dated February 8, 1996, the day President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law. Ultimately, the censorship provisions of that law, a rider to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, were struck down as infringing the First Amendment; the rest of the act, largely overlooked at the time, paved the way for the telecommunications companies formed in the 1984 court-mandated breakup of AT&T to merge back together.

The issues surrounding the CDA are of course still with us and formed one of the key areas of concern (and disagreement) at WCIT. The concern of the mid-1990s - that the Internet would evolve into a sort of Least Common Denominator medium, where only material acceptable to every government would be allowed online - has not materialized. Instead, the organizations founded then have managed to push back as, for example, last month in Britain, where the Open Rights Group led the way on campaigning against a system that would have required adults to opt in to receive...well, material intended for adults. ("Hi. I'm a subscriber and I'm calling because I want pornography with my broadband? Yes, I am over 18. Yes, I understand some of the material I see may be objectionable. OK, I'll hold...") Thousands of parents wrote in to object, and the result is that parents are to be given help in installing filtering software if they ask for it. Sense - and perhaps the British horror of embarrassment - has prevailed.

Note, however, that the Declaration - like the US Constitution before it - says nothing about corporations. In 1996 the largest New Era online businesses were eBay, Yahoo!, and Amazon, minnows compared to older computer industry behemoths and telcos, like IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft. Apple was a non-entity, and mobile phones were still a separate industry. Net pioneers tended to think these companies would not be able to adapt quickly enough to colonize the Internet.

Today, however, it's clearer that arguably the biggest threat to the open and free Internet is in fact not governments - who spectacularly failed to agree at WCIT - but large companies and the progressive closure of the devices we use to access it. Today's biggest computing trend - tablets - emulates mobile phones in curating the additions and alterations users can make, and ordinary Web browsers, too, are beginning to lock down their extensions.

All in the name of security and convenience, of course, and the companies leading the way - Apple and Google - are not wrong in trying to protect us from the constantly increasing array of threats. The material on Blackhole in Sophos' 2013 Security Threat report is truly scary in terms of the complexity of this particular malware; its morphing abilities let it take advantage of any and every hole. We're going to need a layered system, in which the devices we use for sensitive applications - medical interactions, banking, - are locked down but we still have open devices for less sensitive ones. Hard to do, when everyone wants to do everything on their phones, making those the most lucrative targets. Nonetheless, the result will be increased control over the gateways to the Net by a few large companies.

What is likely to be the emerging threat of 2013 and beyond is the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds. All of these will be factors in this: smart street furniture, DNA databases, the large collections of tagged faces being built by social media becoming useful tools to law enforcement and others watching the output of CCTV, tracking via GPS in phones that then in turn enables personalized real-world environments that emulate today's personalized Web pages.

All of that is much more complicated than the last 20 years of threats to the Internet.

So, onward to 2013. Happy apocalypse, everyone!

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


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