The Commercial Internet Just Turned 16 – And like Teens it Could Use a Little Supervision

Hard as it is to believe that just 16 short years ago the internet existed only in the hands of academic institutions. In 16 years we have become so dependent upon the internet in our work and personal lives that it’s hard to recall life without it. And the ride isn’t over yet. The internet continues to evolve so rapidly and in such a distributed fashion that it’s no wonder key safety, security and privacy measures haven’t kept apace.

Taking a look back in time, it was on April 30th, 1995 that the US National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) Backbone Service was decommissioned and the commercial internet as born. Netskape had just been introduced by AOL, and the internet was mainly used to transfer files and send basic emails – remember You’ve got Mail? There were no multi-media services, no online games, no banking, shopping, or user friendly applications.

I remember being a senior financial analyst for the Office division at Microsoft during this internet transition and being told by our VP to add $5 million dollars to the budget “because we’re going to have to figure out this internet thing”.  How time flies.

Reviewing these whirlwind years, is a new study by Analysys Mason organization entitled, “Overview of Recent Changes in the IP Interconnection Ecosystem” and while this may not sound like the most thrilling read, it highlights several key changes:

  1. The obvious exponential growth of traffic which has required market players to adapt by modifying their network architectures and revamping their relationships with their suppliers and peers.
  2. The globalization of internet traffic means that usage and content creation is no longer primarily US –based, particularly as countries and regions have expanded their own internet exchange points (IXPs).
  3. It’s about the money. The value of internet content has dramatically increased. In the early days only the service providers made money.  Now carriers are more like pipelines and the content and services providers have leveraged the value of their material for tremendous gains.
  4. Bandwidth intensive content like videos have experienced massive growthplacing strain on bandwidth requirements and has led ISPs and content providers to adapt their network policies and architectures.Note: This has been the large river behind the “Net Neutrality” push. (For more on Net Neutrality, see my blogs Net Neutrality – Freedom of Speech or Corporate Heist?,  Net Neutrality – How This Debate May Affect Your Safety FCC Voted on Net Neutrality; What Their Ruling May Mean to Consumers, Who’s Who in Internet Politics: Understanding Information Technology Policy, and  Net Neutrality? Not In the European Union).To illustrate just how significant the video traffic will be, Cisco forecasts that the sum of all forms of video (IPTV, video on demand, Internet video, and peer-to-peer) will account for over 85% of global consumer traffic by 2013.
  5. Connectivity is a requirement in any consumer electronic device. From mobile phones to netbooks, tablets, music devices, TV’s and more, failure to include internet connectivity is sure death.

The study highlights that all of these changes have evolved for the most part out of the sight and mind of end-users and regulators – unlike the slow moving world of traditional telecommunications. A Broadband for America article summarizing the report says ” That all this has evolved, largely out of the sight and mind of end-users, in such a short period of time proves, “the commercially-driven evolution of Internet interconnection stands in contrast to the regulation that governs interconnections of telecommunications services.  The Internet ecosystem has proven itself to be able to develop and sustain interconnection in the absence of sector-specific regulation and … has been able to adapt well to rapid and profound market changes without regulatory intervention.

While I agree with much of this assessment, I cannot wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion. The fact that it has evolved “out of the sight and mind of end-users” and “without regulatory intervention” means consumers didn’t have a say in the ethical issues that should have been decided before companies hurtled down paths in pursuit of new technologies, services –  and revenue – that have irrevocably changed our privacy, safety and security. The absence of sector-specific oversight or regulation has unquestionably been a boon to the speed of internet development and innovation, but at what cost?

Oversight helps us collectively grapple with the ethical questions of ‘should’s and should-nots’ so that the entire focus is not just with the ‘can and cannots’, and corporate profit. For example, the scientific community took the time to discuss the ethical issues of cloning, and the acceptable parameters for cloning before rushing into development of something very hard to undo – liked cloned humans. This allowed boundaries to be set in advance for what was, and was not acceptable in this field.

There is humility in the reflective evaluation process that is largely lacking in our current market-driven, no holds barred, rush-forward internet world.

The question isn’t can we store every piece of data about an individual. It’s whether the ability to collect and store every piece of information about an individual should be permissible. We need to ask who would own the rights to such information? How could it be shared? What can be collected without your knowledge? Under what circumstances should the information be available to law enforcement or parents or others? What does privacy mean in this day and age?

We need to discuss what safety requirements should be required to have in place within internet products and services for consumers – and this should happen before products are developed, not after tremendous damage has been done.

For all the great forward progress the industry has made in the last 16 years, the mighty dollar has been their beacon. Balancing profits against safety, security, privacy, ethics  is rarely something an industry does a good job of self-regulating. The voice therefore must be the voice of the people, and we provide that voice through our elected bodies.

We are the ‘government’

While many mistakes are made by governing bodies, the alternative is far more unpleasant.  We need the safety protections that were otherwise not being delivered consistently and by all companies.  We enjoy safe food, transportation, housing, and so on because regulations are in place.

Similarly, for all the tremendous good the internet can do; it can also do great harm. Requiring safety, security and privacy standards to mitigate that harm simply make sense, and we demand this safety by requesting our elected officials to act.

There is a fine balance between government ‘interference’ and companies wanting to ‘ignore’ the needs of the people as expressed through our governing bodies.  Without this tension there is little accountability – and while this is something we know sixteen-year-olds (whether human or industries) may hate to face, accountability is what helps kids and industries mature into the socially responsible digital citizens we need.



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