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geert lovink on Sat, 21 Apr 2001 10:13:43 +0200 (CEST)

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From: "Gary Chapman" <gary.chapman {AT} mail.utexas.edu>
Sent: Saturday, April 21, 2001 12:35 AM
Subject: Internet Battle Is Idealism vs. Income

(fwd. with permission of gary. geert)


Thursday, April 19, 2001

Internet Battle Is Idealism vs. Income

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2001, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

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 Inside.com, 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 

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 (http://www.pfir.org) 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 Technology 
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 
gary.chapman {AT} mail.utexas.edu.

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