The Internet at 30

The internet is older than Azenby. That makes us feel fresh and young. In fact, the internet is old enough to be our father and this year marks the 30thyear of its existence. The Science Museum in London decided to commemorate this milestone by inviting Sir Tim Berners-Lee to give a talk on how his creation is doing as it approaches middle age. Sadly, we were unable to get tickets for this event as they sold out faster than an Ed Sheeran concert. We even tried Viagogo. No luck!

Like most of you, we therefore had to rely on the media coverage of the event to find out what is on Sir Tim’s mind now.

The headline was that Sir Tim said that we all need to fight for the internet we want. We can’t disagree with that, but we would venture that not all users necessarily want the same internet. He also spent time on Net neutrality, which is a favourite subject of his but, not for the first time, we were left worried that Sir Tim may not really understand the different roles that Internet Service Provider, Communication Provider (CP) and Apps Provider all play in the internet eco-system. Sir Tim sees access to the internet as almost a human right and furthermore he said everyone should all pay the same amount for access to the internet and no CP should be allowed to charge more for offering faster access and a higher QoS. This is the point at which we diverge views with Sir Tim. Putting aside the obvious point that CPs proving access to the internet need to be investing heavily in infrastructure and a healthy ROI is a very necessary prerequisite to this, we can’t help but observe that not all user needs for internet access are the same. Far from it.

Some users will rarely or never want anything other than a simple internet connection capable of messaging, a bit of web browsing and updating their social media pages. When we look at the IoT however, we see use cases that demand a very high speed, ultra-low latency, high QoS connection.

At MWC this year, there was a demonstration of open-heart surgery being assisted over an internet connection. Who wants to be lying on the operating table waiting for the next page to stop buffering! Can all the varying needs of access to the internet ever really be all be delivered at the same price? Absolutely not in our view. This would severely curtail development of applications on the internet. Net Neutrality can, and maybe should, prevent CPs from discriminating access to one application provider from another on a charging basis, but it shouldn’t be about a race to the bottom on a basic service offering. If an application on the internet needs a higher quality connection, we firmly believe that a CP should be able to charge accordingly and then let market forces determine the retail price for access to the internet.

Looking at other aspects of the internet of today and tomorrow, we all know that privacy of our personal data held on-line is now the top story. We all need to feel safe using the internet and our confidence in this regard is being shaken almost daily. Sir Tim told us about something called Solid (from his co-founded company Inrupt). Solid is somewhere that you and I can keep all our personal on-line data. The idea being that we then control who has access to what bits of it. An application provider would need to ask our permission before having access. This all boils down to a matter of trust of course and we will all have different feelings about who we trust with our data on line and who is profiling us for profit. With this in mind having our own safety deposit box in the cloud as a single depository of all our data and being able to control access to it on an application basis sounds rather appealing. But can we trust our ‘data bank?’ It seems worth a go, but we would like to see some competition in this space so that we can make our own selection on who we think may be operating the data bank with the highest integrity. This does also begin to gnaw away at the very business model of the Tech Giants, but that is maybe no bad thing.

What else for the future? Well, as bizarre and as counter intuitive as this may seem, it may be time to think about a regulated version of the WWW. No, we haven’t gone mad, but we do wonder if the uncontrolled, no rules and holds-barred approach to how the internet exists today is really sustainable. There are several ways that his might happen, both good and bad. Let’s start with how we would not want to see the internet evolve.

Russia is planning to close down the internet down for a day except for internal communications. The official rationale is that Russia says it wants this ‘switch’ to defend itself against Cyber-attacks from foreign agencies. Roskomnazor (the Russia regulator) says that all traffic must be routed to their ‘eye’ for evaluation. Scary stuff. We do wonder if this would actually work? Yes, you can cut all ties with the outside world (maybe) but web pages are often made up of content that comes from scores of different sources and places and perhaps even from other jurisdictions. Would crucial financial services, aviation systems, defence systems stop working in this scenario? I guess that is what Russia is trying to find out in their test. Good luck with that!

The DR of Congo tried something similar during its elections to prevent external influence. So, the question is, are we moving away from the utopian, altruistic WWW that Sir Tim envisaged and is his fight being lost? And really is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We think state intervention in the WWW is unwelcome but is the web as it exists today sustainable? Have we reached a point where the WWW actually needs to be regulated? Maybe we allow the wild-west version of the WWW to continue but we create a regulated WWW2 where only registered people and organisations can use it? I am thinking somewhere where financial transactions, health care systems, traffic and aviation systems etc. can be safely deployed. Where users are safe from hackers and from manipulation. Where we can feel confident our data is not shared for profit without our consent and we are not profiled in ways which would make 1984 look tame in comparison. Have we gone full circle and the free, uncontrolled, uncensored, open to all, dream of the WWW has failed? It may make Sir Tim and other founders of the internet shout out in horror but is it time for a safe regulated WWW2 to run in parallel with the open access one? Is that the internet we need to fight for?

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