The Internet is continuing to evolve at breakneck speed and businesses, entrepreneurs and governmental institutions are striving to keep up with it. However, it is difficult to tell if the latest developments in Internet technology and regulation are actually progressive and unifying.
National governments are becoming more strident in their approach to the World Wide Web. This can be seen in Google's problems with the great firewall of China or RIM's (BlackBerry) recent feud with the Indian government over its privacy regulations.
It is not simply the more autocratic countries that will impose their administrative powers on to the Internet; every state now has a distinct interest in what goes on in cyberspace. Without a well-maintained virtual infrastructure a state's economy will run less efficiently as communication is inhibited; what is more a country could be more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Such vulnerability was recently seen as the stuxnet worm (a highly sophisticated computer virus), which has recently invaded many industrial computer systems around the world. It seems that many institutions now believe that the Internet is simply too fundamental to the world economy to resist more governmental and corporate regulation. More and more establishments, who are have their own vested interests, are seeking to establish their proprietary rights over the networks that form part of the World Wide Web.
While governments endeavour to reassert their authority in cyberspace, big Internet companies continue to expand the boundaries of their online domains. For example, the ever-popular Facebook has recently introduced its own currency, which allows users to buy virtual services and products.
One could argue that Facebook itself acts like a state with its own national infrastructure, currency and the manner in which it protects its interest. Facebook is by no means the first Internet giant to establish a virtual economy.
Many MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) such as World of Warcraft have had booming virtual economies for years. World of Warcraft in particular is a good example of how the real and virtual economies are coalescing as players use real money to buy virtual products in an electronic marketplace. It seems that the division between the real and the virtual is becoming somewhat of a legal, financial, and even a political grey area.
On the Internet, the key characteristic of the individual is authenticity as opposed to the notion of identity that we know in the real world. With authenticity the ostensible identity of the individual can change as long various electronic signatures corroborate their virtual id; or in other words, that there is consistency and continuity in the various electronic accounts that the individual uses. Online identity is fluid and, to a certain extent, Internet users lack accountability. As a result, it is no wonder that certain governments are becoming a little stricter when it comes to Internet administration.
Many network owners are now advocating the introduction of fast and slow lanes for the net. Theoretically this would allow network providers to improve the system by allocating bandwidth more efficiently.
People who were accessing low bandwidth sites like email accounts or online newspapers would be redirected into the Internet's slow lane; people who were using more bandwidth for things like video streaming or downloading would go into the fast lane. To a certain extent, this is already happening as firms like Google and Amazon bypass the public Internet so their websites load more quickly. Incremental improvements to the system and periodical overhauls in the electronic infrastructure of the Internet are necessary and advantageous.
However, if these developments are not sufficiently regulated then the biggest network providers could eventually charge a premium for use of the "fast lane." This kind of division in the market would mean that the Internet would regress to its early days when companies like AOL dominated the online landscape. Today, the insularity of certain governments, online companies and networks could lead to an internet that is more fragmented and less democratic.
The majority of these developments in the online ecology are the consequences of the commercialisation of the Internet which began with the dot com boom of the mid to late 1990s.
With the proliferation of Internet usage over the last fifteen years, it was inevitable that commercial and governmental institutions would become more protective of their virtual sovereignty.
The main issue for users and those who are politically and commercially impartial is to ensure that the Internet remains a relatively neutral environment. Whilst over-regulation of the Internet would be counter-intuitive, at the same time it is essential to ensure that the commercial or state sponsored interests do not compromise the integrity of the web. All the utopian ideals from the early days may have died down as the Internet has become more and more institutionalised; nonetheless, it is our own interests to ensure that it remains as dynamic and as objective as it is today.
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