How sustainable is an open Internet in the future?

The other week I answered a friend who asked about the future of Internet, that I’m not as optimistic as I used to be. It is obviously so that when a technology starting to spread to the broad masses, the society effects are showing up. We usually recognize it when we publicly starts to blame a technology for this and that. Today Internet takes a lot of blame for many different things e g being the cause of addictions, being harmful to the music industry and of course being the communication channel for global terrorist groups. Since Internet still is an extremely fertile ground for innovation the blame game will continue for quite some time. And for the most of the cases for the right reasons. Digital communication are on its way to fundamentally change our society and the Internet is of course one of the central components in this change.

There are however an number of driving forces that are working against Internet exactly for the reason that it is breaking structures which have been powerful peoples safe haven for some time.

The train of thought catched on again yesterday when I saw a short article in Wired End-Time for the Internet where professor Jonathan Zittrain, who recently wrote a (forthcoming) book on the subject, tell us that he is worried that

users will drift into gated communities defined by their hardware or their network. They’ll switch to information appliances that are great at what they do [email, music, games] because they’re so tightly

Zittrain believes that the reason is that we are moving towards software-as-service where we have less control of the structure. When I hear this I directly think about services like e g iTunes where we sell out our independence and control of the structure because of

  • external threats like viruses and trojans
  • the outstanding integration and ease of use
  • a great user experience and value for money

But also the addiction to a more integrated and service invaded necessary infrastructure software packages like Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office.

Driving force: External threats and maturity of technology into integrated services
Uncertainty: Will the drive of “open source” innovation and new development structures be able to stand up against polished commercial products and services in the long run?

This is of course an interesting driving force towards an Internet which is more in control by a number of successful service providers out there. He has definitely a point, but I believe that there are more powerful driving forces affecting the open Internet the next 10-25 years ahead.

Right now there is a sleeping struggle over the power of the technical infrastructure i e control over ICANN. At least for the time being. The driving force behind this fight is of course the need for some nation states to control and restrict the use of Internet because it is seen as a threat to law and order (read “the government”). Behind this driving force is both the increased threat from global terrorism but also the increased need for threatened hierarchies like the nation states to try to retrieve their power over the people.

IHT December 3, 2006: What’s in an ‘i’? Internet governance
IHT October 30, 2006: ‘Gambits’ put at risk Web domain system
IHT March2, 2006: China sets up system for Internet domains

Driving Force: Control incentives based on security and law and order
Uncertainty: Who will have the control over ICANN in 25 years and what consequences will it have on the openness of the ‘net?

Another driving force which is supporting the above power struggle is the desperation of the former communication giants e g the phone companies. Their revenue is dropping rapidly because people are not buying high-margin services from them anymore, they just buy low-margin bandwidth. And bandwidth is rapidly getting cheaper. If all they got are the pipes, where will their future revenue stream come from? By controlling what runs in the pipes of course! Both countries and service providers are interested in controlling the Internet and the communication pipe companies are offering them that opportunity. And you bet that the highest bidder will have most control! Modern network equipment are today both capable and fast enough to look into the packages and actually know what is inside, which means that whoever sits on a communication pipe also can control the traffic.

Guardian Unlimited April 6, 2006: Trouble on the line
MIT Technology Review: From Information Freeway to Toll Road

Driving force: Commercial control incentives and new technical possibilities of control
Uncertainty: Will there be technical solutions to avoid being controlled and restricted by the network providers in the future? Is new independent bandwidth providers the answer? Is wireless communication going to bypass the controlling providers?

What stands against these driving forces? Basically only power of the billions of connected individuals who believes in a more fundamental right to communicate freely.

What is starting to happen or will happen in the next number of years is that these controlling driving forces will start to reinforce each other at the same time as Internet naturally will be so commoditized that it will not be an enough interesting political issue any more.

I hope I am wrong!!!