0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.
Twenty autumns ago, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, came up with a catchy name for a revolutionary project that aimed to open the Internet to the masses. “The World Wide Web,” he called it, and the image proved to be so evocative that, for many people, the Web has become synonymous with the Internet.But now, two decades after Mr. Berners-Lee had his brainstorm, some people are predicting the demise of the Web. Even though the Web is merely one of many online applications, they add, this could be the end of the Internet as we know it.“The Web is dead,” Wired magazine declared in a recent cover story. “The golden age of the Web is coming to an end,” wrote Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. The Atlantic magazine warned of “the closing of the digital frontier.”The argument goes something like this: After falling in love with the openness of the Web, consumers are recoiling from its chaos and embracing the sense of order offered by walled-off digital realms. These include applications for mobile devices like Apple’s iPad and iPhone and password-protected social networks like Facebook, where much of what people do takes place beyond the reach of search engines and Web browsers.Meanwhile, advocates of openness fear that telecommunications companies want to build separate, Balkanized “Internets” of their own, where they control the content and collect tolls for traffic that passes through them. Some media companies are already putting more of their content, once freely available, behind pay walls, and lobbying governments to crack down on the free-for-all of illegal file-sharing.Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of Internet law, says that the growth of walled gardens like Apple’s applications store have threatened the “generative” character of the Internet, which has permitted users to build on what is already there, as with Lego toys.“The serendipity of outside tinkering that has marked that generative era gave us the Web, instant messaging, peer-to-peer networking, Skype, Wikipedia — all ideas out of left field,” he writes in a recent book, “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” “Now it is disappearing, leaving a handful of new gatekeepers in place, with us and them prisoner to their limited business plans and to regulators who fear things that are new and disruptive.”Are matters really so dire? For the doomsayers, there are some inconvenient truths.Every day, about a million new devices — computers, mobile phones, televisions and other things — are hooked up to the Internet, according to Rod Beckstrom, chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet address system. The total number of Internet users worldwide, about two billion, is growing by 100 million to 200 million a year.Most of this growth is occurring in developing countries, where the Web is dominant and applications stores and the like have made fewer inroads. The number of Web pages has grown from 26 million in 1998 to more than a trillion today, according to Google.The Web has been better equipped to reach new corners of the world since the recent opening up of the domain name system to non-Western languages. North America, which once dominated the Internet, now represents only 13.5 percent of its users, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site that compiles such data, compared with 42 percent for Asia and 24 percent for Europe.“Reports of the death of the Web have been greatly exaggerated,” Mr. Beckstrom said. “It’s going to be alive and kicking for a long time.”While the Web is merely one of many applications that operate over the Internet, along with e-mail, instant messaging, peer-to-peer file-sharing services and other tools, it is the most familiar one for many people; almost anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection and a little bit of knowledge can view a Web page.So as other kinds of Internet traffic have started to grow more rapidly than Web use, some open-Internet campaigners see a threat to the Web and, more generally, the Internet as we know it. Yet the distinctions are growing less relevant. When you visit YouTube, for example, you are using the Web to sort through the available videos, while the video stream is delivered outside the Web, but still via the Internet.Even if the supposed threats have been overblown, it is clear that the Web and the Internet are changing.Mobile devices increasingly come with Internet access as a standard feature. Within a few years, analysts predict, more people will connect to the Internet from smartphones than from deskbound computers.The popularity of applications for smartphones, often with content or features similar to those available on open Web sites, could steer more toward private digital gardens, like those that existed in the heyday of online services like CompuServe and Prodigy.“A walled garden is a place where everything looks beautiful, it works well, and there are flowers everywhere,” said Frédéric Donck, director of public policy at the Internet Society in Brussels. “But it’s not the Internet.”Why? Applications available for Apple devices are subject to approval by the company, which rejects, among others, those that do not meet its guidelines for taste or decency. Some European newspapers have had to censor racy photos to make their applications conform with Apple’s rules, which prohibit displays of bare female breasts.“People don’t think of their use of devices as a political act,” said Mr. Bernoff, the Forrester analyst. “They just think about whether they are having an elegant, seamless experience. But do I really want Apple deciding what kind of content is appropriate?”For Internet users in countries like China or Iran, the idea that there are limits to online freedom is nothing new. There, governments routinely block access to Web sites that feature dissenting political views.Advocates of an open Internet worry that official oversight is on the rise elsewhere. In Australia, the government has proposed a system through which the Internet would be filtered to block access to sites containing child pornography or other material that is illegal or deemed to be highly offensive.Movie and music companies, meanwhile, have lobbied governments to crack down on digital freeloaders who engage in unauthorized sharing of their content. Countries like France, Britain and South Korea have established laws authorizing the suspension of persistent copyright pirates’ broadband connections, in an effort to get more of them to become paying customers.For advocates of openness, the nightmare outlook is one in which telecommunications companies, allied with other corporate partners, seize control of the Internet and run it in a way that maximizes profits, rather than openness. This concern has fueled calls for governments to impose rules to enforce “network neutrality,” or equal priority to all Internet traffic, regardless of the content.“The Internet has become a truly global space where everyone, almost everywhere, has access to the same information,” said Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a group based in Paris that campaigns against restrictions on Internet use. “I think this is one of the most precious things we have ever built as a civilization, and this is what is at stake now.”Others say network neutrality is a largely American issue, rooted in a lack of competition among broadband providers, which fuels fears that these companies might abuse their monopoly positions.There are other signs that competition can keep openness alive. One of the most successful of the closed systems, Apple’s iPhone, is already showing signs that it might be eclipsed by other, more interoperable rivals. In the United States, sales of smartphones using Google’s more open Android platform recently overtook sales of iPhones. Android phones also use applications, but unlike Apple, Google does not screen them, and Android is open to competing applications stores, like one planned by Amazon.Even the idea that the desktop and the mobile Internet exist in two different spheres may turn out to be merely a temporary phenomenon, some analysts say. Much of the content in mobile applications is scoured and repackaged from the Web — so, for now, at least, it is difficult to argue that users of applications are really turning their backs on the Web.“If you go with the Web, the potential mobile audience is in the billions. If you go with any of the smartphone operators in a closed environment, it’s a small fraction of that,” said Jon von Tetzchner, chief executive of Opera Software, a Norwegian company that develops Web browsers. “To me, it seems like the Web has been winning fairly big time.”
"Do I really want Apple deciding what kind of content is appropriate?”
"Advocates of an open Internet worry that official oversight is on the rise"