What’s happening to our Internet?
A battle for control of the Internet by governments and commercial interests is happening. In 2011 alone, we saw debates and legislative battles over Internet kill switches and net neutrality, as well as bills and laws such as the NDAA, the Patriot Act, SOPA, PIPA, the Open Act (an alternative to PIPA/SOPA), FERPA (about student privacy), and COPA (the Child Online Protection Act).
I don’t believe you have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing nut who subscribes to conspiracy theories by ancient societies to recognize what is occurring. Nor do you have to be a privacy hawk to see this is just the tip of the iceberg. Simply consider the totality of the efforts here and abroad to rein in ISPs, Google, Facebook, and other services.
Yet it wasn’t always this way.
The Internet began as a transport. It served as the connection mechanism between islands of resources. The BBS had equal footing with the university, and the Gopher engine dominated search. The BBS gave way to subscription services like Prodigy and AOL, which for all practical purposes was the Internet, since most users never left the AOL-hosted content once they logged on.
Commercialization of the Internet emerged as companies found new business models in e-commerce, and the dotcom era exploded. Governments took a hands-off approach to regulating the Internet, even going so far as to look the other way on Internet gambling and other adult activities. They even passed laws to foster the democratic nature of this self-regulated “thing” that gave the average citizen the ability to compete head to head with the titans of industry.
Throughout the rise of the Internet, privacy was a concern, but it related mostly to personal protections. New laws on banking (GLBA), healthcare (HIPAA), libraries, and education (FERPA) focused on the rights of citizens and on protecting children. When Jolt-drinking hackers made the news, there was often a David versus Goliath angle that appealed to the inner hacker in all of us. And despite winning the battle over Napster, the government and industry clearly lost the war.
Much of the Internet has changed, but with the explosion of the social business, we need to acknowledge that much of the Internet hasn’t changed. As a result of dirt-cheap bandwidth, transport capabilities are still driving innovation. And for many users, the Internet is still just one or two sites offering user-generated content and games.
So what has changed? What’s driving this push for control? Here are some elements:
- The emergence of hacktivists and WikiLeaks is making governments and corporations vulnerable to a new kind of espionage that does not respect the rules of the professional spy.
- Fear that political and consumer dissidence will accelerate through social media is real and requires new capabilities to respond.
- Corporations and governments seeking to aggregate and consolidate consumer data, medical records, and student records must overcome the privacy laws standing in the way.
- The growth of Internet sales and the thirst for new tax revenue has reignited the debate over an Internet sales tax that sounds more like the Belarus strategy.
In a nutshell, what has changed is that an open and democratized Internet may no longer be compatible with a Western government agenda and traditional corporate interests.
Do users care? Will they tolerate this, just as long as the Obama administration doesn’t shut down FarmVille, Club Penguin, or World of Warcraft?
In a surprising twist, it seems the public does care, as evidenced by the boycott of GoDaddy over its original support for SOPA/PIPA. Now there is talk of an Internet blackout, possibly on Jan. 24, by Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Amazon in protest of SOPA/PIPA. The fear of censorship even has some investors considering building an entirely new private network to sidestep the Internet control agenda.
Meanwhile, IT professionals working in affected industries will need to account for the changes in their strategic plans. And they will need to adjust their vision for the trajectory of the Internet -- domestically and abroad.
For the rest of the Internet community, we will have to decide if we can live with the proposed changes to “our” Internet or add our voices to the opposition movement.
[Editor's note: Jerry will join Internet Evolution editors for a live chat on this topic and our new report, "The Government vs. the Web." Join us here on Friday, Jan. 13, at 1:00 p.m. ET.]
— Jerry Bishop is an independent consultant specializing in CIO services, IT strategy, and turning around underperforming IT departments.