Which way for the internet? Some observers have declared the internet dead (or boring, which is much the same in the fashion driven world of marketing). Forrester Research, the organisation which makes a lot of money hyping technology, is waiting for something to replace it, which it calls the "X internet".
A far more positive picture emerged at INet 2001, the annual conference of the Internet Society (ISoc), held in Stockholm in the first week of June.
ISoc is an odd blend of engineers, academics, corporate profiteers and others with an interest in the internet. The major sponsor this year was the telecommunications equipment giant Ericsson, out to prove that it is more than a telephone equipment company.
On the other hand, unlike the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which charges members US$50,000 per year, ISoc isn't primarily an association of corporations. Its recent recognition as a non-government organisation by UNESCO reflects its aspirations and approach.
Key to this difference is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) which is part of ISoc. The IETF is a technology focussed body that "owns" the technological direction of the internet. It has managed to retain some level of independence from commercial and government organisations. When the US Federal Bureau of Investigation pushed for telephone call wiretapping to be incorporated as an integral part of internet voice technology in early 1999, for example, the IETF voted by around 800 to 25 to reject this.
ISoc is also attempting to create an "internet societal task force" to examine internet related non-technical issues such as usability, accessibility (the "digital divide") and privacy.
Among the highlights of the Stockholm meeting were debates on the proposed next generation of the internet, management of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and intellectual "property rights".
Traffic on the internet at present is dependent on billions of individual addresses, which have now all been used up. IETF has designed IPv6 as an alternative new architecture, with trillions of trillions of addresses. As well as solving this issue, however, IPv6 would contribute significantly to converting the internet into a highly organised structure with significant privacy implications. These threats got a hearing at the conference.
Control of internet names and numbers is becoming increasingly controversial. ICANN is the US government's attempt to maintain leadership of the process while appearing not to. One aspect of the controversy has been the close relations between the US government, ICANN and VeriSign, an organisation which has greatly benefited from the government approach (possibly because of the apparent role of former US intelligence operatives within the company).
Another is the issue of ICANN membership. Non-corporate candidates won a number of positions in the recent at-large membership elections, prompting a push to abolish at-large membership. ISoc members are found in all areas of ICANN membership, and ISoc continues to host a lively debate on the issue.
A panel debate on "intellectual property rights" focused on the rapacious nature of the recording industry. Speaking against these "rights" former performer John Perry Barlow provided US figures showing that 40% of revenue from live concerts gets to performers compared to 4% of CD sales revenues. Performers aren't being abused by internet users swapping songs, he said, but by the industry that is "robbing them blind."
The future of the internet as a useful and open means for exchanging information is unclear. But ISoc is providing one of the forums in the battle to keep it open.
BY GREG HARRIS (firstname.lastname@example.org)