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Future of the internet: networked society stands in peril

Judging from the books received for review by Computer Weekly, the debate over the future development and use of the internet is intensifying.

First, there was the paperback version of Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet - and how to stop it, an academic, legalistic view first published in 2008 of the threat to the net that stems from its abuse by governments, corporations and criminals.

Zittrain, a former computer science professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that the success of the internet is due to its "generativity". This is the economic benefit generated from products developed by people experimenting and playing freely in cyberspace.

Zittrain says governments want to control and tie down the net to identify and disable threats from spies, terrorists and criminals. Corporations such as music and film publishers want to preserve their revenue stream by stopping piracy and illegal distribution of copyright materials, and criminals want to exploit the net for their own ends.

Zittrain says that to develop further the net can no longer retain the frontier aura it has enjoyed to date; it needs rules and policing. But he says the present proposals are too blunt and risk stifling the creativity that has brought us thus far.

The second book, Henry Porter's The Dying Light, is a fictional account of an attempted coup by the British prime minister who exaggerates the threat posed by terrorists to assume absolute power.

His Orwellian actions are aided by pervasive surveillance of all aspects of civil life and the provisions of laws already on the British statute book, especially the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

Both books warn of a dystopian future in which ordinary people have their every move in real and cyberspace watched and analysed to control their behaviour better and to centralise the exercise of power.

Porter worries that the British capacity for keeping calm and carrying on means, as the information commissioner once put it, that we are "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". Zittrain offers more concrete proposals in terms of the required laws and regulatory apparatus. He argues that the preservation of personal privacy, and with it the freedom to experiment in cyberspace, is now the paramount necessity.

Both authors believe that ordinary people can come to the right decisions regarding the future of the net, providing enough of them have the right information at the right time.

If preserving the generativity of the internet means tolerating both the good and bad aspects of creative endeavour until a better solution emerges by consensus, then viva adhocracy. As John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, once said, "Noise is the price you pay for signal."


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