Vint Cerf is quoted in the International edition of Newsweek (May 15-22) saying:
Sadly, it looks like the period in which the Internet functions seamlessly is over.
That's quite a warning, and I'm surprised that - in a world where the borderless and efficient functioning of the Internet is becoming vital to governments, businesses and individuals alike - it has not been picked up and commented more widely. Cerf (left on the picture) knows his topic: he is probably the best-known of the engineers who created the Internet almost 40 years ago, and is currently the "chief Internet evangelist" at Google. Another key Internet figure, the inventor of the Web Tim Berners-Lee (right on the picture), a few days later cautioned that the network could "enter a dark period". Tim added on his blog:
It is of the utmost importance that, if I connect to the Internet, and you connect to the Internet, that we can then run any Internet application we want, without discrimination as to who we are or what we are doing. We pay for connection to the Net as though it were a cloud which magically delivers our packets.
What is this about? There are forces at play that threaten to balkanize the Internet. Here is a partial inventory:
- Telecom and cable companies - The functioning of the Internet is currently based on the principle of "net neutrality": everyone has potentially the same level of access to it and all data moving around is treated equally. Big telcos and cable operators, particularly in the US, are pushing for the creation of a tiered system, where data from companies or institutions that pay a fee would be given priority (and granted higher speeds) over those that do not or cannot. The battle cry of the telcos has been given by the CEO of AT&T when, a few months ago, he asked why websites "should be able to use my pipes free", basically suggesting that sites should pay internet operators (telcos, cable companies and other ISPs) for access to their customers (the Internet users). On top of potentially creating a hierarchy of websites, a similar system could also lay the ground for politically or otherwise-inspired abuse. Legislation to impose "net neutrality" is slowly making its way through the US Congress, with backing from other big companies (Google, Microsoft, etc), but the telcos' lobbying is among the most efficient in Washington, so the result is uncertain. (Personally, I believe that net neutrality is fundamental, and that short of it major websites should reciprocate by asking telcos and cable operators to pay fees to carry their content: after all, the reason why we all subscribe to broadband connections is to access Internet content and services, not to have a pipe to AT&T, so in fact the Yahoos and MySpaces of this world are bringing customers to the telcos).
- China, Iran et al. - China has shown a pretty good understanding of the workings of the Internet and has succeeded, often with the help of Western makers of hardware and software, in developing sophisticated ways to censor its citizens' online activities. That has effectively created a parallel, sanitized (from the Party's perspective) web inside China, and the censorship techniques are being exported to other countries, or inspiring them (Iran has threatened to set up its own alternative Internet), potentially undercutting the global oneness of the system.
- Anti-ICANN countries - Many countries, especially in the developing world, have expressed in recent years a growing discontent with the way one of the vital elements of the Internet, its addressing system (called DNS for domain name system) is managed. It is currently coordinated by ICANN - the Internet corporation for assigned names and numbers - which is a California-based private company run by an international board that has, by mandate of the US government, the sole power to approve top-level domain names (".com", ".uk", ".ch" and the likes). There are two series of complaints in this: while the Internet is nowadays a global resource, too much power over it still remains in US hands; and ICANN has been too slow in acceding to the demands for local-language domain names (no longer based on Roman characters but, say, on Chinese or Farsi) and other local and regional requests. There is a big number of potential minefields here that could blow a hole in the Internet's unity anytime soon.
- Open rooters - The same issue (control of the domain name system) has compelled groups of techies such as the Open Root Server Network (based in Germany) to act by setting up an alternative to the existing root-server network. Root servers are a crucial component of the functioning of the Internet, because they contain the information (addresses) that allows the network to "route" data and messages to their proper destination. There are 13 of them around the world, several of which located in the US including the main one, and the ORSN is unhappy about that because it leaves open the possibility that the root-server information could be modified - for example by "turning off" the national domain name of a whole country, hence stopping it from using the Internet. This scenario is remote, of course (and locating the servers in other countries won't automatically ink it out) but not impossible. (I reserve judgement over ORSN until I find the time to look into it more closely: while alternative root systems seem to be an obvious threat to the stability and oneness of the Internet - creating, say, multiple sites with an identical address - ORSN's efforts seem to subscribe to ICANN's policies and be fully compatible with ICANN's "root zone", hence rather reinforcing it).
- Europeans - Countries like France and Germany have their own concerns about Google and the likes, because they see them as increasingly powerful cultural gatekeepers. That's why the two governments are pouring billions of euros into, for example, developing an alternative search engine codenamed Quaero (I've already blogged my skepticism about it). No doubt that competition is good, but, as writer Rana Foroohar suggests in that Newsweek article, besides draining resources from other areas where Europe could potentially play a leadership role (wireless is the obvious example), an online "culture war" may end up isolating users - in the sense of creating islands - rather than connecting them - creating bridges.
There are probably more, but this is my shortlist - feel free to add by commenting to this post. The open and borderless architecture of the Internet and of the web has been key to the extraordinary innovation and wealth creation of the last 15 years, and there are certainly many more Internet innovations to come. While it is clear that the Internet must move beyond its US roots and "globalize" its governance as well as its reach, it is also vital that it remains one, open and neutral. Nothing good would come from its balkanization.
UPDATE 13 October 06 - Nitin Desai (Chair of the UN's Internet Governance Forum) on the likely balkanization of the Internet.