The Future of the Internet

The internet is the publicly accessible global network of billions of computers, ranging from ordinary home and business PCs to smartphones, satellites, and supercomputers. Due to the decentralized nature of the network it is impossible to oversee, control, or dominate all of the information that passes it. With the rise of the internet of things (Kranenburg, 2008) the number of connected devices will surely continue to grow indefinitely.

Where is this going? This question is on the minds of many internet users, civil servants, and corporate shareholders. If they could only predict the future of the internet they would have certainty and could make the right decisions about regulations and business strategies.

However, posing this question in the first place exposes a flaw in their thinking. The question “where is the internet going?” presupposes that the internet is an autonomous entity that is somehow controlling culture and society (Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant, & Kelly, 2009). Asking this question shows fear of the internet’s influence while disregarding the role humans themselves have in shaping the internet. In reality, the internet isn’t going anywhere without the efforts made by users, governments and businesses. That means the real future internet depends on the outcome of the battle for control these parties are fighting today. In this article I will show what this battle is about and argue that the outcome will favor only one group—the users.

To understand where the internet is going, one first needs an understanding of where it came from. In the first part of this article I will outline the evolution of the internet until the present day. In the second part I will discuss today’s different visions about the internet’s future, and try to expose the underlying dimension on which they differ. Finally, I will extend today’s trends into the future and sketch the internet of 2020.

1. History of the Internet

After Charles Babbage invented the Analytical Engine in 1837, it took science one hundred more years to arrive at the first general-purpose, Turing-complete, digital electronic computer: the ENIAC. The successors of this monstruous 30 ton machine soon evolved into more manageable sizes due to the inventions of the integrated circuit board and the microprocessor. As these systems were acquired by universities, institutions and corporations, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) devised the necessary technology to connect them through telephone landlines. The resulting ARPANET consisted of interconnected mainframe computers—mostly room-sized PDP-10 computers and closet-sized PDP-11 computers located at large US-based organizations (Waldrop, 2008). In 1974, Cerf, Dalal, and Sunshine proposed a method for connecting other computer networks to the ARPA network, allowing computers that were originally located in separate, local networks to communicate with all other connected systems using an inter-network protocol—the internet was born.

The founders of the internet and the emerging online subculture placed strong values on the sharing of information and the openness of communication. They condemned the use of copyright law to restrict their freedom in sharing and modifying software, and reacted to this practice of the emerging software industry by releasing their own software without any restrictions on its use, modification, and distribution. This formed the foundations for the increasingly popular Free and Open Source Software movement. They also deemed the use of open standards for communication a critical requirement for a manageable, scalable, and publicly accessible internet. To that end, the early network researchers working for ARPA created the tradition of public development and publishing of internet-related standards through the so-called Request For Comments (RFC) documents; human-readable, ASCII-encoded text files. Today, a number of organizations are devoted to sustain the public nature of the internet and the open development of standards. Since 1992 most of them are united through the Internet Society, who’s mission is “to promote the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world.” (Internet Society, 2010).

The internet finally reached its mainstream public with the announce of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1990. This web is the enormous, ever-increasing set of publicly available HTML-coded webpages distributed on the internet using the HTTP protocol. These standards were invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and are maintained in an open fashion by the World Wide Web Consortium. It is this web of information that is commonly referred to as “the internet”, but there’s no reason other technologies than HTTP/HTML can’t make use of the internet. And indeed, new technologies continued to emerge in the 2000s, some of them (e.g., BitTorrent, Skype, instant messaging, online gaming) quickly approaching the popularity of the orginal web. The biggest change in the last decade, however, was the rise of Web 2.0.

2. The Internet Today

The limited and static WWW of the early 1990s, with its lack of search engines, the animated “under construction” banners on personal homepages, and the top-down content-generation approach taken by early internet companies, stands in sharp contrast with today’s Web 2.0. This new view of the web is characterized by a dynamic, bottom-up, collaborative, and open approach to content-generation. It’s both remarkable and natural that the new generation of internet users developed the same values of collaboration, openness and sharing as members of the early internet subculture did. The major successes of Web 2.0 include numerous forums and blogs as well as projects like Wikipedia, Youtube, and Digg. A related class of successfull Web 2.0 projects consists of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

The message of the internet’s success is clear: there is no need for a centralized power structure to manage communications, resources, people, and communities. The internet will increasingly empower ordinary users. When this trend towards decentralization continues, the internet could ultimately completely overthrow traditional centralized organizations and even governments. However, existing corporations and governments will of course try everything in their power to provide a counterforce. The resulting battle between the opponents and the proponents of an open and unrestricted internet is already in motion (Singel, 2010). Both sides are proposing increasingly drastic measures to protect their own interests. I will discuss two of these opposing views for the future of the internet; Charney’s (2008) End to End Trust vision and the Free Culture Movement.

2.1 End to End Trust

Charney (2008) argues that the internet of today is riddled with privacy, security, and safety issues. The continuing growth of the medium will likely attract even more criminal activities like copyright infringement, identity theft, extortion and espionage. The internet actually fosters crime by its global reach, the possibilities for anonymity and untraceability, and the abundance of valuable targets of attack. The majority of computer users lack the knowledge to prevent or act on those crimes, and thus depend on their hard- and software manufacturers to protect them from it.

The current architecture of the internet does not allow for a solution to this problem, according to Charney. The ultimate responsibility lies with the end user, who can always be tricked into providing private information or who’s computer can be compromised by malicious software. To protect the user, the framework of the internet needs to be changed fundamentally. This can be accomplished with the idea of trusted computing. First, devices need to be replaced with trusted stacks, uncrackable combinations of authenticated hardware, software, users, and data. Second, users need to be identifiable and held accountable for their actions, so they can be properly prosecuted when they commit a crime.

Charney’s vision of End to End Trust has been opposed by the advocates of a free and open internet, most fiercely by Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU/Linux operating system and the Free Software Foundation.1 Stallman (2007) claims that trusted computing is not defending the users’ interests, but the interests of large media corporations that want to secure the distribution of their content. On a trusted stack, copyright holders can impose any limitation they want upon the user. Rooted in the early internet subculture, Stallman’s values of openness and sharing pertain directly to standards of communication and software, but they have been extended to include other sorts of creations by law professor Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (Lessig, 2004), by which he founded the Free Culture Movement.

2.2 Free Culture Movement

The Free Culture Movement is today’s embodiment of the internet users’ philosophy of openness and sharing. It promotes the freedom to modify and distribute creative works like software, writings, images, music and films. The sharing of information, its members claim, is vital for the innovation in technology, sciences, and arts. Therefore, the movement opposes existing copyright laws, arguing they hinder creativity even though they were originally intended to promote it. According to Lessig (2004), this has resulted in a “read-only” internet where most people only consume content, because it is illegal to to reuse and expand it in a true Web 2.0 fashion. A notable accomplishment of the Free Culture Movement is the Creative Commons license, which was popularized with its adoption by Wikipedia.

This copyright license explicitly grants the user certain rights, for instance the freedom to modify and redistribute a creative work. Because copyright laws were originally intended to only prohibit users’ rights, this new use of copyright law is sometimes called copyleft. This is the same principle that is used for the licensing of Free and Open Source software like GNU/Linux. In both cases, however, there is a catch: A user is only allowed to distribute a creative work without posing any further restrictions on it. This means that a modified work can only be distributed under the same copyleft license, which guarantees that all “offspring” of a particular creation will always remain free. This has led to an ever-expanding universe of free software, books, music and other creations.

The difference between the End to End Trust vision and the vision of the Free Culture movement differ in more than just their view of the role of copyright law. They also differ in the way the original WWW and Web 2.0 differ; it is the difference between a centralized, top-down, and closed approach to the internet and a collaborative, bottom-up, and open approach. The both ends of this spectrum are of course extremes, but hopefully they signify what today’s debate about the internet is really about. In the next section I will explain why the open side of the spectrum is winning this debate, and what the resulting internet will be like.

3. The Internet of 2020

In the previous section I have tried to show in what aspect the different visions about the future of the internet diverge, namely on the dimension between a free and open internet that continues to empower ordinary users on one side, versus a closed and “trusted” internet that restores the power of centralized corporations on the other. Clearly, the odds are in favor of the users. It were the early users that shaped the internet and it are the many new users that are driving today’s success of Web 2.0 and its valuable ecosystem of free creations. How is it possible that ordinary users are winning a power struggle that most of them don’t even consciously participate in? To answer this question, I will have to return to the point I made in the introduction.

The internet is not an autonomous entity that is taking society into a new “information age”, it is society itself that is empowering its members via the means the internet infrastructure provides. Since this infrastructure is open and decentralized, all participants have an equal oppurtunity to make themselves heard or to offer their services to other users. The internet was built from the ground up to offer this freedom as its default option. Corporations and governments who succeeded in the past to lock users into their services (e.g., the printing press, newspapers, mail, and television) will fail in their attempts to seize power over the internet, for instance by the “uncrackable” trusted computers discussed earlier. The democratic-by-default nature of the internet ultimately undermines every such attempt. Even the Chinese government, notorious for its efforts to censor the internet, could not prevent the Chinese users in standing up for their rights by posting an open letter to their government and Google (Anonymous Chinese netizens, 2010). However, the battle between users that are trying to free the potential of the internet and corporations that are trying to restrict it is far from over. Indeed, the greatest fear of the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee is “that it’s taken over by either a very large, powerful company or a country” (Internet Governance Forum, 2009). Fortunately, given the long-standing record of success of the free and open aspects of the internet, this is very unlikely to happen.

What will happen is a massive expansion of online content in the next decade. There will be an explosion of data, according to Evans (2009). The average amount of personal data doubles roughly every year, leading to a thousandfold increase in ten years. The average computer user will then maintain 130 terabytes of information. The amount of information corporations will accumulate about their users’ behavior will grow even faster, doubling almost every four months. This will lead to a 50-fold increase in only two years, and will possibly have multiplied by millions in ten years. This poses new challenges for the continuation of a free and open information society. At first, corporations will be reluctant to give free access to the data they accumulate, Governments will have to device new laws to overcome both the interest of corporations to maintain competitive and the interest of individuals to control their privacy. Berners-Lee (2009) pleads for a new web of data. An internet where everybody shares all data with everyone will foster creativity, innovation, economy and the valuable understanding of the world and nature. In ten years, the web will be thousands, perhaps millions times as large as it is today.

The issue of online criminal activities, as outlined by Charney (2008), will still be there in 2020, and will most likely continue to exist forever. There is simply no trusted stack that can eliminate evil intentions, and if it is ever released, the criminals will simply not buy it. However, there’s no reason to be pessimistic about it. In ten years, a new generation of computer users will have grown up, and they will be tech-savy enough to manage their online identities and they will help to protect the older generations from harm. As always, only a very small proportion of them will engage in criminal activities. As always, politicians will propose new laws to deal with new types of crime and, as always, criminals will ultimately be caught and prosecutued. Besides, in 2020, you can probably buy an insurance for identy theft.

The internet’s culture of openness and sharing will produce countless innovations over the next ten years. There’s a whole generation of internet users getting connected right now, and as they discover the myriad of online sources they will be inspired to build upon them, resulting in great technological, scientific, cultural and even political advances. As of now, the European government supports this vision, emphasizing a future internet of users, services, content and things (European Union, 2010). However, this vision will be subject to change, as the advocates of a more restricted internet will do everything in their power to have their visions institionalized as well. Therefore, it is of critical importance that freedom remains the default option of the internet, even when the success of the internet’s decentralized power structure will lead to the unavoidable debate on the nature of politics itself. Could there be a Government 2.0? Perhaps not in ten years, but the discussion will have started by then.

To conclude, the internet of 2020 will be mind-boggling, although from 2020’s perspective it will be a commodity. Access to the internet will be a fundamental human right (GlobeScan, 2010). Great progress will have been made on both technological grounds by advancing network speeds and storage limits, and on cultural grounds by connecting and educating new users. It will be available to every world-citizen, allowing them to understand and influence the world arround them in a true democratic fashion. It will bring together individuals, groups, and countries, resulting in a vibrant, global, online community.