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Internet Battle Is Idealism vs. Income

April 19, 2001|GARY CHAPMAN |

People concerned about the future of the Internet have reasons to be worried. There are some ominous lessons emerging from the wreckage of the dot-com crash, lessons that could turn the Internet into something quite different from what many visionaries hoped it might become. It's significant that several of the earliest Internet pioneers are starting to sound alarms about where the Internet is headed now.

One recent lesson absorbed by many investors is that the Internet is probably too vast, too untamed and too chaotic to sustain business models such as the ones that generated so much frenzied enthusiasm before the stock market tipped over a year ago. With millions of Web pages and e-mail messages competing for attention, it takes too much money and fortitude to create an online business with a steady stream of loyal, paying customers. The idea that anyone with an e-commerce Web site could sell anything under the sun seems completely dead now.

The alternative seems to be a move toward closed networks, not unlike America Online, in which the user experience is guided, shaped and far more controlled--something advertisers and online retailers are demanding. In other words, there is a growing sense in the high-tech industry that consumer networks of the future will begin to look more like television--indeed, some believe interactive digital TV is the true wave of the future.

Michael Hirschorn, editor of the online magazine, said at last month's South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin that he'll be surprised if in five years people are looking at the Internet through a Web browser. More likely, he thinks, will be widespread use of interactive TV networks managed by large media companies.

In the current issue of Wired magazine, the cover story is about how high-speed broadband networking companies will eventually offer new forms of interactive programming, such as digital video and games, for a fee. But many of these new services will require network connections that bypass the current Internet to guarantee no time delay in a digital video stream or in a consumer's interactive commands. "Quality of service" will become important and thus will be packaged and sold as a competitive advantage. That points to closed and managed networks.

That's what is worrying some old-hand Internet engineers and activists. On May 5 and 6, a small group called People for Internet Responsibility ( will host an invitation-only meeting in Culver City of Internet pioneers, public interest advocates and others who think the "egalitarian vision" of the Internet is worth preserving. PFIR is led by Peter Neumann of SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., one of the world's leading experts on computer security; Lauren Weinstein of Vortex Technologies in Woodland Hills, the longtime moderator of the online Privacy Forum; and Dave Farber, professor of computer engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the recent chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission and one of the most respected sages of the Internet.

As Neumann and Weinstein told me: "The Internet is in grave danger of being essentially hijacked. It's being turned from a powerful tool that should serve the interests of all humanity into instead an asset of vested interests who mainly have their own well-being and concerns in mind. We hope to find paths to help assure that the Internet will be a resource to benefit everyone."

This is part of an ongoing and sometimes heated debate. Many Internet idealists think the commercialization of the Internet has been a blight and an embarrassment--a depressing repetition of our experience with radio and TV. Online business leaders, however, retort that the Internet was available to only a tiny elite until it was taken over by the private companies and entrepreneurs who turned it into a mass-consumer service.

The Internet won't survive unless it's economically viable. But the vision of egalitarian, universal communication benefiting all of humanity won't survive if economics is all the Internet is about.


Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

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