Our Stake in Cyberspace

The Future of the Internet and Communication As We Know It

Part II:

Four Scenarios

For the purposes of this report, let's sketch out four scenarios. Consider the marketplace as being defined primarily by two axes: degree/nature of access to the benefits of globally connected networks, and control of the content available on those networks.

Axes of content and networks

These axes separate our digital world into four hypothetical futures in which the forces of control have very different effects. A world where one has lots of access but very little information to choose from will encourage different personal and cultural development from a world that has lots of information but no way to find it. A world that is very controlled in terms of what information is available and when or how you get access to it will likewise produce a different society than a world that's easily accessible and open to new information and development of new ideas.

While this report focuses on the people and culture of the United States, many of the concepts will be applicable globally. When appropriate, examples from our global history will be used in the following scenarios to illustrate certain circumstances. In reality, none of these scenarios will exactly describe our future. It is more likely that our future will have characteristics from each quadrant, expressed to various extents in different environments. It is also likely that the extent of controls will be shaped, in coming years, by the well-financed lobbying efforts of some special interests, the wisdom (or lack thereof) expressed by the courts, and/or the potentially emerging grassroots voice.

Quadrant 1

Quadrant 1: Many Walled Gardens is an environment of proprietary, branded, and fragmented networks. The networks may claim to be connected to each other, but communication between them is difficult. AOL's customers can't chat with Microsoft's or Yahoo's customers, who can't connect with AT&T's or Sprint's or Sony's customers. There are lots of "consumer" communications devices, but each works with only one provider.

America Online (AOL) is a case in point, with its proprietary environment and tools like Instant Messenger, AOL Mail, and even its own AOL Web browser. The AOL opening screens are filled with advertising and buttons that take you to other AOL services (which of course have more advertising). A user must be determined to leave the AOL environment and venture out into the untamed Internet. In this way AOL acts as a filter, limiting their customer's world to those companies with which AOL has a business relationship.

AOL's Instant Messenger is a popular chat tool that relies on AOL's servers to relay messages to users. Several other companies have attempted to make chat clients compatible, but AOL keeps shutting the others out claiming AOL's security is being breached. If network security is that easy to breach, they have a bigger problem than they're willing to admit. It's more likely their financial security they're worried about, since other chat clients would not be accepting the ads that are mandatory with AOL. Ads are a significant part of the AOL experience, as users well know.

Microsoft is also moving in the direction of offering a proprietary network, with their .NET,[17] Passport, and Palladium technologies. Still a monopoly on the computer desktop, Microsoft has demonstrated the will to compromise other technologies to their exclusive benefit. A closed network of users is certainly in Microsoft's cards.

Wireless phones offer yet another example. Once you buy a cell phone, you are locked into a specific provider's network. If you want to open an account with another provider, you'll likely need to buy a new phone.[18]

Let's assume that this trend continues for five or ten more years. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised competition, which-in the following five years-rose, then fell off into oblivion. Competition continues, but only for the very big companies: AOL-Time Warner, Microsoft, two big cable companies, three big local Bell telephone companies, and a few large media interests that buy up and partner with various bit players on their way out of the market. Those become the only choices for Internet connections. But what's left of the Internet?

One example of how this might play out is a university network that limits students in the dorms to Internet access through one particular ISP. The university limits student use on its own network due to the increasing cost of litigation and misuse of resources, and the ISP limits the available network speed to prevent file sharing and certain other uses. Additionally some ISPs team up with certain Internet Services vendors, and that results in some services being incompatible with other network users' systems. (AOL users can't chat with MSN or Yahoo users, MSN users can't exchange video files with Real users, etc.)

The university also institutes policies outlawing wireless networks, ostensibly because that technology interferes with essential university wireless technology (university phones, remote controls, etc.). In addition, the university-based ISP promotes advertising, because students represent an important consumer market.

In this scenario, once a user gets access, a great deal of information is available. Universities, commercial interests, non-profit organizations continue to offer an abundance of diverse communications in the form of research, white papers, marketing brochures, action kits, guides and pamphlets, and much more. To the extent allowed by the big networks, regular folk still publish Web pages and carry on discussions about their work, their families and personal interests. But independent developers would bear the increasing cost of making information accessible to each of the competing networks, or risk being unreachable.

Fear of "information overload" is exploited as a scare tactic to promote "safe and controlled" environments. Safe and controlled, however, means that some knowledge and references are limited or not available at all. The big networks act not only as filters, but carry individual biases as to what kind of Internet is available to their users. In the end, the bias of the networks, even if it is expressed only through advertising, limits the likelihood of informed decisions. Increasingly, the network becomes the message.

If you are a small business (in this scenario), say a technology developer, one strategy would be to create a framework for providing network oligarchs with variants of your technology, which intentionally does not interoperate with other networks. If your tools or toys are good, everyone will want them-for their own customers only.

Quadrant 2

Quadrant 2: Just Route the Bits. Landline and wireless telephones easily connect to computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), set-top devices, and new tools as they are developed. Computer and network users have access to the network from their favorite software and hardware devices. Encryption is widely and invisibly deployed. Autonomy is key; no one is locked into doing things in a particular way.

The technical community largely works to support the global public interest, making the whole collection of networks (phone, cable, wireless, satellite, etc.) a commodity. Communication is symmetric and open, encouraging a free flow of content development and use by everyone, everywhere. Many people feel that this is the most desirable and, for the moment, most politically challenging scenario.

As an example, let's say students in the future publish their school works online, making it available for reading and peer review by a global audience. Students' handheld computer and communications devices work in their classrooms as well as remotely, taking care of technicalities like authorship and authenticity, security, and connecting to the Internet. The Internet is not limited by technology, but is open in design and use.

Brand names are much less important as marketing tools, as customization is now the priority. Digital watermarks and trademarks are no longer needed, as a document's content is keyed to authorship and authentication factors. Copyright is assured and not enforced. The nature of a document's content can be weighed against bodies of work by other authors. When some information is treated as fact, its origins and context can be traced. Anonymous documents might be represented by one or more Surety bodies.

In this scenario, information is plentiful and easy to reach. It's so easy and so abundant that people can be overwhelmed by all that's available. Some will be amazed and energized by their options and possibilities, looking for ways to better themselves and their worlds. Others will retreat from the chaos. A few will fear it.

Too much information may deter access to what's critical. Filters help some, but may not be effective in such a rich world. It can be a cerebral challenge on one hand, but utterly distracting on the other. Like having all the tools to create something you'd want, but not knowing what that might be. Or walking into a department or grocery store and suddenly not remembering why you came in-a subconscious short circuit.

"When information is plentiful, peers take over. In fact, as reliable information becomes common, almost nothing can stop peers from taking over."[19] This is a world in which your friends and trusted references often help you sort through and find what's needed. Communities develop to enrich and interpret the vast global database of knowledge. Here, people matter most.

If you're a small business in this scenario, you might partition your work or designs so that you can give large strategic portions of it away for free–before someone else does.

Quadrant 3

Quadrant 3: You Will. AOL-Time Warner, which already controls #2 cable provider Roadrunner, gets widespread broadband or wireless deployment and expands its customer base and market position. The remaining ILECs all merge into one or two, or collude as a cartel. Microsoft implements a thousand proprietary software functions which, with the help of virus writers, destabilize the Internet causing Microsoft to implement more proprietary protocols, creating a new network just for its customers.

Hollywood acquires vast intellectual property and patent portfolios that, partnered with strong laws controlling use and distribution, provide Hollywood incentive to further expand its holdings. Special networks provide exclusive pay-per-view offerings. There’s little competition among broadcasters, insured by high costs and monopolies in the broadcast market.

Devices like set-top boxes are simple and standardized, and cooperate. Innovation is limited due to coordination and development cycles of the broadcasters. Content is catalogued for authenticity before release, making it easier to find, control, and collect fees on its use. Commercially acceptable artists may have a financially secure future as long as their work is within established Hollywood guidelines. On the other hand, independent artists aren't catalogued and don't have much of a chance to be heard.

Internet service providers are increasingly limited in number. Following the Disney + MSN partnership of 2002,[20] most providers have merged or partnered with the big entertainment interests. Ad companies are delighted, handing advertisers captive movie and television audiences.

As an example, Microsoft, AOL and Intel might form a new alliance to "tame the wild beast that was the Internet." In this scenario, virus-carrying email causes widespread disruption of home computers and business networks, escalating until it results in a nationwide business shut-down. Through .NET and other network-based mechanisms, Microsoft controls and forces application of updates and patches in home and office systems alike-from the operating systems right through to desktop applications.

AOL controls unwanted virus-carrying email and unwanted commercial e-mails promoting fraudulent products or get-rich-quick schemes, identifying and disallowing unauthorized commercial content.

Intel addresses concerns for system and intranetwork stability in the business world by providing a dependable, stable computer, from desktop to handheld, that works with new Microsoft and AOL technologies.—As a bonus to Hollywood, it also controls the copying of unauthorized content.

In this scenario, the Internet is limited to what the providers will give access to. Partnerships between content providers and the network distributors happen at a frantic pace, since Hollywood determined through research that the audience likes "new" things.

If the public isn't paying attention, they won't know what's going on; they may sink into their chairs, not raising their hands from the mouse button or TV remote control until it is too late. The laws could be passed and the restrictive technology manufactured if the public decides the programming isn't that bad, and Internet access is easy-something they don't have to think about. As long as they don't need to buy a new TV or computer, there's no problem. When new equipment is required, consumers will have to choose between different sets of options for specific networks or service providers. Consumers had better be happy with their choices, however. The results of a bad decision may cost them the price of more new equipment.

Entertainment experiences alter our worldview. This scenario is a land of brainwashing, where our environment is often stronger than our will. Those in ultimate control of our access and information are in strong positions to control our thinking. The government of China, for example, limits its citizens' access to networks and information. When those leaders re-write history, it's not long before the Chinese population is behind their leaders in telling the story of "the way it was." They feel a part of the system, not realizing there's another story to be told. Hitler, too, used controls in his way to paint the "way" of the world. Many, many people went along with him. It's very difficult in this scenario to find or create a different world, a different "way."

Entrepreneurs' best bets are to be bought by one of the oligopolies. Individual strategies don't stand a chance unless they have the support of the giants.

Quadrant 4

Quadrant 4: The 10,000 Mickeys. There's an abundance of innovative devices for displaying the few available Time-Warner e-books or showing the limited selection of movies that Disney offers at any given time. Now merged, cable giants Comcast and AT&T offer their broadband customers a choice between @Home or Earthlink, Internet service providers that are intermediaries offering different packages on the Hollywood and the RIAA access portals. Open Source projects flourish, but are constrained to work with established and standardized digital rights-management tools and licenses. Whatever happens, it's gonna cost you.

Information is biased and filtered. People are not terribly well informed, as their news coverage and perspective is limited to coverage of stories that the network thinks is suitable for its audience. If viewers have questions, say, about a toxic product that the prevailing channels aren't covering, they won't find much information. What's new are the reruns and spin-offs currently being offered. Sports scores can be obtained anytime, anywhere. There's comfort in not knowing; there's still plenty to see, partial pictures are good enough, and this becomes a safe environment.

The ability to copy works has gotten considerable attention, especially lately, causing the FBI and Congress to react (or thoughtlessly over-react, as many believe) to protect copyright holders.[21] Fair use has been eliminated. Libraries must now buy site licenses for their digital media, and copy machines mark serial numbers visibly on each copy. Several versions of digital rights-management software are available on the net and users must choose between versions in order to play commercial recordings. Time shifting is allowed for an extra fee. Location shifting is discouraged, but a few people have convinced The Omnipotent Network that an ad hoc pay-per-view option would be desirable as an alternative to the normal subscription model. Users must now pay for each use, each song played, each movie viewed.

Many new technologies have been introduced to, then withdrawn from, the market due to their limited usability and/or available content. Open networks encourage creative devices, but connecting to the real networks and real news sources is difficult, resulting in the technologies becoming secondary to local communities, friends, and colleagues.

The cost of publishing personal Web sites is now too high for most people to afford. The networks, concerned about vicarious liability, have passed copyright insurance costs on to consumers. Protecting rights holders, including locating and suing infringers, has become big business. People now feel safer lurking on the net from one of many available devices than actually participating.

The cost in this scenario is that copyright holders may cause a backlash as the mass market's craving for distraction grows. Here, an entrepreneur might find success in offering goods, services, or technologies through open source or unlicensed content.

The Eye of the Storm

As mentioned above, the "official" future will most likely include some elements from each of these scenarios. The question is how much of each? To answer, we must start our exploration in the present: the center point in these scenarios.

Each scenario has already begun:

As is the example in Many Walled Gardens (Quadrant 1 above), AOL has a proprietary network with limited access (once you find your way out of AOL) to broader Internet content. Microsoft, through its market history and current .NET and Passport technologies, has shown that it also wants to control the network but may be willing to give some access to public content through proprietary tools such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, wallet, chat, MSN's search, and more. In Congress, several bills have been introduced to restrict or "protect" the networks and/or the users:
Just Route the Bits (Quadrant 2) is a continuation of the Internet's original philosophy: make open tools to communicate, and people using those tools will have something to say. People change their tools to fit their needs. Flexible tools find their way into creative uses as technology is allowed to evolve naturally. Many of the technologies underlying our current Internet, as well as many private intranets, are open source and thus open to further enrichment and development. People are increasingly exploring ways to "give things away."[22] There is little visible support for this scenario in Congress since most politicians pander to protectionism. The few bills that speak to openness and freedom are:
You Will (Quadrant 3) is the preferred model for the record industry and Hollywood interests that, with the help of their political lobbying dollars, seem bent on removing "fair use" and "time or place shifting" from our vocabulary. Several bills are being considered to do this. Control of networks and when content is delivered gives broadcasters maximum influence over our environments and thus our worldview. Big media continues to consolidate with the support of the FCC, despite what viewers and listeners want.[23] Several of the Congressional proposals listed in Many Walled Gardens above also strengthen this scenario, with additional support very likely in the next Congress:
The 10,000 Mickeys (Quadrant 4) is exemplified by Microsoft Reader, Adobe E-book Reader, and Adobe Acrobat. The readers are free, but the "e-books" and other viewable documents that you can purchase are tied to the specific capabilities or limitations of the reader software. A decision favorable to the government in the Eldred case will be influential in this scenario.

Within these scenarios, each success or failure will depend on the players: hardware and software designers and manufacturers, special interests such as Hollywood and the Recording Industry, the government regulators, the courts and Congress, and most importantly the computer users (who have largely been silent as to their desires and needs). Battles are waged in the form of lobbying dollars and campaign contributions, user-patronizing political positions, technologically limiting designs, civil disobedience, and more. Battles are lost through silence and inactivity.

Once not that long ago, television—new and promising technology of the time—had an uncertain and unsullied future. Now it is merely an advertising delivery mechanism. Will the Internet follow suit? Have we learned any lessons from our past battles that we can apply to our current situation? Who cares, and what will we pay to have things our way? Will consumers use laws and choose technology to create a future that they desire and will find useful? A lot is at stake, and the future remains uncertain. We need listen only to the voices to divine our direction.

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