Monday, February 6, 2012

10 threats to The Golden Age of the Internet

I have always been fascinated with the phrase "The Golden Age of Science Fiction," primarily because my favorite science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, was a central figure during that period. It is generally believed that the golden age of science fiction occurred between 1930 and 1950, when authors like Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were pioneering the way. What fascinates me most was whether the authors and readers of science fiction at that time knew they were living in the prime of the genre.

And that brings me to the topic at hand: the Internet. We are living in the best of times, when an Internet connection can be found almost everywhere, when the majority of the population participates, and when the governments of the world have, for the most part, maintained a hands-off policy. For many reasons, WWW could more appropriately stand for the Wild Wild West and not the World Wide Web. However, threats seem to lurk around every corner. I will list 10 of the biggest here.

1: Government regulations

Once again, Internet regulation is in the news, with the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress. Of all the changes to the Internet that could be detrimental, I fear red tape and government regulations the most. SOPA and PIPA appear to be dead for now, but it's only a matter of time before the next threat rears its ugly head. There are plenty of existing laws to address the lawless amongst us, but legislators seem bent on enacting Internet-specific laws. Never underestimate the power of governments to destroy what they try to protect as they attempt to bring law and order to the Internet.

2: Censorship

You would think that most people would consider censorship of the Internet a bad thing. However, a BBC World Service poll showed that only 53% of the respondents felt "the Internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere." And those are scary statistics if you want your Internet to remain free of censorship. All you have to do is look at countries like China to realize how government intervention can screw up a good thing.

The fact is that censorship currently exists in many countries, including the United States, where some school and public library computers are filtered. And it's not just governments that can and do censor the Internet. Take a close look at your ISP's terms of use and you may find that it too censors what it deems to be "objectionable."

Fortunately, the chances are good that your home Internet connection is still free from the heavy hand of the censor. But "as good as it gets" means that Internet censorship can only get worse, as freedom of speech on the Internet is slowly chipped away over time.

3: Taxes

Legislators solve the dilemma of allowing the use of "sinful" products like tobacco and alcohol by taxing them — a lot. How long can it be before a "sin tax" is placed on the viewing of pornography, online betting, and other "sinful" activities? Currently, few U.S. residents realize that most must pay a use tax for items purchased over the Internet from another state. Fewer still actually pay those taxes. States are quite cognizant of this loss of revenue and have begun to seek ways to collect their monies owed.

New York and other states' laws require vendors with an affiliate nexus relationship in their state to collect taxes on business done in their state. As I discuss in another article, "The New York legislation essentially ties all employees, salespersons, independent contractors, agents, or other representatives and affiliates to the vendor. The nexus of any of these entities in the state of New York forces the vendor to collect taxes on all transactions from New York residents even if that vendor has no direct physical presence there." Similar Internet tax legislation may be proposed in more states in 2012. One thing seems certain: The tax man cometh and he's loaded for bear.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or CPA. The content of this article is for informational purposes only and is not meant as legal advice. Tax laws are complex and you should contact your lawyer and/or tax adviser for specific advice.

4: Bandwidth limitations

I must admit that before doing the research for this article, I thought that the majority of ISPs were not limiting bandwidth usage. But as Table A shows, the broadband police have already arrived for most in the U.S., although unlimited bandwidth can be found in other countries. As you might expect, the limits are even more restrictive in the mobile Internet space — except for Virgin Mobile, which offers an affordable unlimited plan.

Table A: Broadband bandwidth caps for major U.S. ISPs

*Except for CenturyLink, bandwidth limits combine upload and download bandwidth.

Please note that terms are subject to change. If your ISP is not listed and you are unsure if there is a bandwidth limitation, it is a good idea to check.

Additional information:

5: Access charges

Internet access is broader than ever for Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Free Wi-Fi can be found at large chain stores like Starbucks and McDonald's, though you might be surprised to learn that these are recent developments — January 2010 for McDonald's and July 2010 for Starbucks. Even your local café is getting in on the act. I recently took a trip and found free Wi-Fi heaven at the Tucson International Airport. There were Internet stations "with a view" overlooking the tarmac, where you could plug in and recharge your mobile device. It was a different story at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. I could get Internet access for a "mere" $4.95 per hour or $7.95 per day via Boingo and plug in at a not-nearly-as-nice free Samsung recharging station. And it is the latter example that has me worried that the free days of Wi-Fi access may be a short experiment.

6: Internet money

What if everyone had an Internet account containing Internet "chits" that could be used to pay for Internet products and services? Web sites could begin requiring some of those chits to watch a video, read an article, or download a file. Requiring .005 chits here and .100 chits there doesn't sound like much, but multiplied by hundreds of page views, it would add up quickly. Fortunately for the browsing public, such a way to get into your pockets hasn't yet been implemented. But I am sure that services like Google Wallet and PayPal would like to become the model that rules the Web. This one is a double-edged sword. It can solve some problems and create new ones.

7: Subscription-based income model

Some of you might remember years ago after the dot-com bust when the advertising-based model of income generation for Web sites was threatened with a fee-based subscription model. Pundits opined that this would become the wave of the future. It never happened. Fortunately for those of us enamored with free, this concept has morphed into both free and premium content. The advertising-based income model is alive and well. And it will probably stay like this for most Web sites as long as free market competition and a multitude of alternatives exist. But the threat is still lurking in the background. The pundits are still saying that the subscription-based model is coming. Don't be too surprised if you see content providers try this model in the upcoming years — especially those streaming digital content.

8: The end of free services like Skype

If you had told someone in the '70s that you would one day be able to talk to anyone in the world for free, they would think you were destined for the proverbial padded room. Assuming you have a device that connects to the Internet, a fast Internet connection, and a webcam, you can not only talk to someone living on another continent in real time, you can also see a live video feed of them and instant message them. Anybody remember the AT&T Picturephone that was going to be the next greatest thing in telecommunications? That went nowhere. But the concept lives today as Skype and other similar services. Although basic services are free when you contact other members online today, some are worried that Microsoft's purchase of Skype can only mean that those days are numbered.

9: Copyrighted material

You might not like it, but piracy of copyrighted materials on the Internet is a problem that needs to be addressed. Artists should be paid for their work. It may take years for this issue to be worked out, but free access to copyrighted material won't be reality forever. A simple way needs to be developed for ethical users to pay for copyrighted content. Call me naive, but I can't see how another law will solve this problem. It could be resolved if content providers like YouTube charged for content like full-length HD movies with part of the proceeds going to the copyright holder. The threat here is that a bad solution like SOPA/PIPA will one day be implemented.

10: Privacy abuse

Your privacy is under assault. Governments publish your "public information," search engines collect your search terms and IP address, cookies track your browsing activity, hackers steal your personal information, and keystroke loggers track your every keystroke. Privacy policies, ironically, explain the ways that your privacy will not be protected. You may not be aware of another privacy offender, Local Shared Objects, aka flash cookies. Flash cookies are used by the Adobe Flash Player and are not removed by the normal methods of cookie removal.

It is the information age. So it's not too surprising that the people who use information technology, and those who abuse it, want to collect as much information about you as possible. It's how they put food on their table and toys in their garage.

In the name of security, some legislators are asking for the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. intelligence agencies to increase the monitoring of social site data. EINSTEIN is a system originally designed to monitor Internet traffic moving to and from U.S. federal government networks. Einstein 3 may be deployed to critical private networks. These trends point to a further assault on privacy in the future.

Count your blessings

Without a doubt, the Internet as it exists in 2012 is a good thing. It would be sad if we didn't realize how good we have it. Fortunately, important players like Wikipedia do "get it," as evidenced by their response to the SOPA/PIPA acts. And that is heartening, since the single greatest threat to the Internet is apathy.

The Golden Age of the Internet: 1995 –?

How long the Internet remains golden is anybody's guess. It wouldn't be too surprising to find ourselves just a few short years from now reminiscing about the good old days of the Internet, longing for the free days of Skype, and the many freedoms that now exist. "Too good to be true" can't last forever, can it? It is possible that most of it will last if we fight to keep it that way. But if that doesn't work out, enjoy the Golden Age while it lasts.

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