Goodbye Internet, we hardly knew ye?

Throughout its history, the Internet, in most places, has been essentially free from government regulation

This end-of-year article is a looking forward one -- looking forward to a year in which the Internet will be under a multi-pronged attack that threatens to change it irrevocably in ways that may destroy much of the Internet's potential.

Also read: 2010's biggest security snafus

Throughout its history, the Internet, in most places, has been essentially free from government regulation. There are significant exceptions -- a few counties do quite an effective job of controlling Internet content and a number of countries control specific Internet technologies such as encryption and VoIP. But, on the whole, the Internet has been left alone to disrupt businesses, governments and society. The Internet's impact on the music and film businesses, newspapers, privacy, social unrest, government transparency (voluntary and otherwise), and education, among many other things, has been profound.

Of course, there are a lot of people not all that happy with the changes that have been enabled, or in some cases, forced by the Internet. For quite a few years the copyright industry has been railing against the Internet. They have tried repeatedly to legally mandate technical controls, such as the broadcast flag (see Protecting the past), media taxes (which assume that all users of CDs, for example, are stealing copyrighted material), and penalties such as three-strikes rules, which cut off Internet access on multiple accusations -- not on proof -- of copyright violations. (See ACTA: No longer secret but still plenty to worry about.)

To date, most of these efforts have caused some individuals great pain but not changed anything fundamental.

But efforts to control the 'Net in other ways are beginning to heat up.

There was a great deal of discussion during the recent ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico about the possibility of bringing the Internet under the same regulatory regime that the world's phone systems are subject to. In the end, strong efforts in this direction were deflected and the meeting ended with global Internet regulation largely nonexistent. But a new threat has surfaced from the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, which has voted to establish a government-only Working Group on Improvements to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF is a multi-stakeholder group that meets to discuss Internet governance issues but has largely left the regulatory picture unchanged. Now, a UN government-only group will investigate how to fix the IGF - it does not take much imagination to see what the likely result will be.

Governments, in general, do not much like the Internet, or at least the Internet-based activities that they do not control. Some governments, such as China, have established strong controls over the Internet in their own countries. Venezuela has just proposed to do the same.

Restructuring the Internet so that each country has a control point could easily wipe out the ability of Internet users to find out what is going on in the world.

But we do not have to wait until the UN acts to see the future. The U.S. government recently seized a bunch of domain names without letting the owners contest the seizure.

News reports show that the U.S. government pressured PayPal and Amazon to stop supporting WikiLeaks, again without any due process. You do not have to be a fan of WikiLeaks to understand that letting the U.S. government decide, on its own, without the legal process defined in our Constitution, what should and what should not be accessible on the Internet is not a recipe for freedom. Maybe they can take pointers from China.

Meanwhile the FCC will be voting on a new U.S regulatory regime for the Internet on Dec. 21. The FCC has not bothered to actually be open enough to let us know what the FCC will vote on but the rumors should make anyone interested in an open Internet cringe.

I may be being a bit alarmist above but signs do seem to be converging that the future Internet will be the Internet of old more in name than in fact. Happy New Year.

Disclaimer: I'm sure there are Harvard folk into onomatology but I did not consult with them about the future Internet, so the above pessimism is mine alone.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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