Patrice Riemens on Thu, 4 Nov 2010 01:07:29 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Eric Pfanner: Proclaimes dead, Web shows new life (NYT/IHT)

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Proclaimed Dead, Web Is Showing New Life

PARIS ? Twenty autumns ago, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist,
came up with a catchy name for a revolutionary project that aimed to open
the Internet to the masses. ?The World Wide Web,? he called it, and the
image proved to be so evocative that, for many people, the Web has become
synonymous with the Internet.

But now, two decades after Mr. Berners-Lee had his brainstorm, some people
are predicting the demise of the Web. Even though the Web is merely one of
many online applications, they add, this could be the end of the Internet
as we know it.

?The Web is dead,? Wired magazine declared in a recent cover story. ?The
golden age of the Web is coming to an end,? wrote Josh Bernoff, an analyst
at Forrester Research. The Atlantic magazine warned of ?the closing of the
digital frontier.?

The argument goes something like this: After falling in love with the
openness of the Web, consumers are recoiling from its chaos and embracing
the sense of order offered by walled-off digital realms. These include
applications for mobile devices like Apple?s iPad and iPhone and
password-protected social networks like Facebook, where much of what
people do takes place beyond the reach of search engines and Web browsers.

Meanwhile, advocates of openness fear that telecommunications companies
want to build separate, Balkanized ?Internets? of their own, where they
control the content and collect tolls for traffic that passes through
them. Some media companies are already putting more of their content, once
freely available, behind pay walls, and lobbying governments to crack down
on the free-for-all of illegal file-sharing.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of Internet law, says that the
growth of walled gardens like Apple?s applications store have threatened
the ?generative? character of the Internet, which has permitted users to
build on what is already there, as with Lego toys.

?The serendipity of outside tinkering that has marked that generative era
gave us the Web, instant messaging, peer-to-peer networking, Skype,
Wikipedia ? all ideas out of left field,? he writes in a recent book, ?The
Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.? ?Now it is disappearing,
leaving a handful of new gatekeepers in place, with us and them prisoner
to their limited business plans and to regulators who fear things that are
new and disruptive.?

Are matters really so dire? For the doomsayers, there are some
inconvenient truths.

Every day, about a million new devices ? computers, mobile phones,
televisions and other things ? are hooked up to the Internet, according to
Rod Beckstrom, chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet address system. The total
number of Internet users worldwide, about two billion, is growing by 100
million to 200 million a year.

Most of this growth is occurring in developing countries, where the Web is
dominant and applications stores and the like have made fewer inroads. The
number of Web pages has grown from 26 million in 1998 to more than a
trillion today, according to Google.

The Web has been better equipped to reach new corners of the world since
the recent opening up of the domain name system to non-Western languages.
North America, which once dominated the Internet, now represents only 13.5
percent of its users, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site that
compiles such data, compared with 42 percent for Asia and 24 percent for

?Reports of the death of the Web have been greatly exaggerated,? Mr.
Beckstrom said. ?It?s going to be alive and kicking for a long time.?

While the Web is merely one of many applications that operate over the
Internet, along with e-mail, instant messaging, peer-to-peer file-sharing
services and other tools, it is the most familiar one for many people;
almost anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection and a little bit of
knowledge can view a Web page.

So as other kinds of Internet traffic have started to grow more rapidly
than Web use, some open-Internet campaigners see a threat to the Web and,
more generally, the Internet as we know it. Yet the distinctions are
growing less relevant. When you visit YouTube, for example, you are using
the Web to sort through the available videos, while the video stream is
delivered outside the Web, but still via the Internet.

Even if the supposed threats have been overblown, it is clear that the Web
and the Internet are changing.

Mobile devices increasingly come with Internet access as a standard
feature. Within a few years, analysts predict, more people will connect to
the Internet from smartphones than from deskbound computers.

The popularity of applications for smartphones, often with content or
features similar to those available on open Web sites, could steer more
toward private digital gardens, like those that existed in the heyday of
online services like CompuServe and Prodigy.

?A walled garden is a place where everything looks beautiful, it works
well, and there are flowers everywhere,? said Frédéric Donck, director of
public policy at the Internet Society in Brussels. ?But it?s not the

Why? Applications available for Apple devices are subject to approval by
the company, which rejects, among others, those that do not meet its
guidelines for taste or decency. Some European newspapers have had to
censor racy photos to make their applications conform with Apple?s rules,
which prohibit displays of bare female breasts.

?People don?t think of their use of devices as a political act,? said Mr.
Bernoff, the Forrester analyst. ?They just think about whether they are
having an elegant, seamless experience. But do I really want Apple
deciding what kind of content is appropriate??

For Internet users in countries like China or Iran, the idea that there
are limits to online freedom is nothing new. There, governments routinely
block access to Web sites that feature dissenting political views.

Advocates of an open Internet worry that official oversight is on the rise
elsewhere. In Australia, the government has proposed a system through
which the Internet would be filtered to block access to sites containing
child pornography or other material that is illegal or deemed to be highly

Movie and music companies, meanwhile, have lobbied governments to crack
down on digital freeloaders who engage in unauthorized sharing of their
content. Countries like France, Britain and South Korea have established
laws authorizing the suspension of persistent copyright pirates? broadband
connections, in an effort to get more of them to become paying customers.

For advocates of openness, the nightmare outlook is one in which
telecommunications companies, allied with other corporate partners, seize
control of the Internet and run it in a way that maximizes profits, rather
than openness. This concern has fueled calls for governments to impose
rules to enforce ?network neutrality,? or equal priority to all Internet
traffic, regardless of the content.

?The Internet has become a truly global space where everyone, almost
everywhere, has access to the same information,? said Jérémie Zimmermann,
co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a group based in Paris that campaigns
against restrictions on Internet use. ?I think this is one of the most
precious things we have ever built as a civilization, and this is what is
at stake now.?

Others say network neutrality is a largely American issue, rooted in a
lack of competition among broadband providers, which fuels fears that
these companies might abuse their monopoly positions.

There are other signs that competition can keep openness alive. One of the
most successful of the closed systems, Apple?s iPhone, is already showing
signs that it might be eclipsed by other, more interoperable rivals. In
the United States, sales of smartphones using Google?s more open Android
platform recently overtook sales of iPhones. Android phones also use
applications, but unlike Apple, Google does not screen them, and Android
is open to competing applications stores, like one planned by Amazon.

Even the idea that the desktop and the mobile Internet exist in two
different spheres may turn out to be merely a temporary phenomenon, some
analysts say. Much of the content in mobile applications is scoured and
repackaged from the Web ? so, for now, at least, it is difficult to argue
that users of applications are really turning their backs on the Web.

?If you go with the Web, the potential mobile audience is in the billions.
If you go with any of the smartphone operators in a closed environment,
it?s a small fraction of that,? said Jon von Tetzchner, chief executive of
Opera Software, a Norwegian company that develops Web browsers. ?To me, it
seems like the Web has been winning fairly big time.?

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