The Issues Shaping the Future of the Web

Article ImageWhat will the internet look like in 10 or 20 years? While this is an unanswerable question, it doesn't stop the speculation. Policies pursued (or not pursued) by governments, especially in the U.S., will go a long way toward shaping tomorrow's internet.

Recently, several scholars were asked to contribute essays for a special issue of the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication. In the issue, The Future of Internet Policy, the authors are very critical of the U.S. government's handling of the internet and present varying policy solutions for making tomorrow's internet more equitable.

Many of the authors highlight the threats to Net Neutrality and the chilling effect on innovation a tiered internet would have. Others write that government intervention was necessary to maintain a level internet playing field and increase access for the one-third of Americans who don't have access to broadband.

Victor Pickard, co-editor of the issue and author of its "The Great Evasion: Confronting Market Failure in American Media Policy," says that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should prevent a tiered internet. "Certainly smaller digital publishers should be concerned about the prospects of an Internet without net neutrality," he says. "If the FCC doesn't intervene, such a loss could dramatically change the economics of the Internet in ways that favor big content providers over small ones."

Peter Decherney, the issue's co-editor, says that it's not clear if the FCC even has the authority to act on Net Neutrality, and Congress might not be able to pass legislation on such a hot-button issue. A failure to preserve Net Neutrality could mean trouble for smaller content providers, Decherney says, as larger companies could pay for greater access to customers, for example. "The start-up costs probably become insurmountable" for smaller publishers, he adds.

In the essay "Crypto War II," Sascha D. Meinrath and Sean Vitka write that cryptography could proliferate if Net Neutrality is not maintained, as ISPs won't be able to segregate encrypted-and therefore anonymous-traffic. Tiering will be rendered moot if ISPs can't identify the type of data flowing through their pipes.

The authors agree that a tiered internet will benefit larger paying content providers and will be a raw deal for smaller content providers and consumers. "The potential for exclusive deals (or simply ones that new start-ups simply cannot afford) helps to limit competitors by creating an additional barrier to entry," they say. "This is the next logical step on the road to digital feudalism."

Another trend, covered in Decherney's "Fair Use Goes Global," is the spread of the Fair Use doctrine. The singular American notion of using a small amount of copyrighted material without permission has sprouted in Israel, the Philippines, and South Korea. Fair use is so uniquely American a notion that Decherney says Google couldn't have started in any other country. "[Google's] whole business is based on copying without permission. They've turned it into an opt-out system," he says.

Many other American businesses are dependent on the doctrine as well. "It's a straight engine for technological innovation, and so many internet businesses and media businesses exist because of fair use," says Decherney. "It's been called fair use start up capital."

Google's services look quite different in most countries than they do in the U.S. due to either the lack of or a different implementation of fair use. Americans see a couple of lines of text when they search. In Germany, a user would only see a headline, Decherney says, because Germans have decided that using a couple of lines of copyrighted material is not fair use. The restrictions don't just apply to search. "In Europe, companies aren't allowed to collect more data than they need," Decherney says. "And that has made Google Street View very complicated. They basically have to blur up everyone's face."

Israel and South Korea were the first two countries outside the U.S. to adopt fair use, Decherney writes in his article. It's no coincidence that both countries have strong innovation cultures, as the U.S. does. Decherney says that while it won't happen overnight, "I actually think that it's going to be considered a necessity at some point and many other countries will actually adopt fair use."

To many, it's accepted wisdom that print journalism is dying and that digital media will be the savior of the news media, even if digital media is not exactly a cash cow yet. In "The Great Evasion: Confronting Market Failure in American Media Policy," Pickard writes that the situation is actually a lot worse than that. The American news media has experienced what he calls as "systemic media market failure."

He writes that good journalism and access to it (primarily via broadband) is a public good, as essential to a functioning democracy as "artificial light, clean air, [and] knowledge," and capitalism is not the best means to provide it. In fact, Pickard writes that capitalism is abysmal at providing a quality news media and really shouldn't be expected to provide what he calls an "essential public service." The same government that provides other public goods-such as schools, roads, and public parks-should create an environment that encourages a robust free press by increasing competition and building networks to compete with cable and other large internet providers.

Pickard was also pessimistic about journalists' and digital publishers' ability to self-sustain without government intervention. "Despite a growing exuberance, it is still not clear at all that most of these digital experiments will be profitable," he says. "Pay walls and digital advertising have shown limited success for most ventures thus far. The core challenge of monetizing online content remains."

Pickard says that the general public seems oblivious to the fact that "actual journalism is also disappearing" as there is no shortage of online media content. And the media is exacerbating the situation by overhyping the potential of digital models to save traditional journalism.

While it may be too soon to make any concrete predictions about what the future of the internet will look like, it is clear what the issues shaping it will be. Smart content creators will keep a close eye on each of these factors-but so will consumers.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)