Internet standards: who's in charge?

The Internet community is left mostly to its own devices when it comes to regulation as it is a relatively new medium

The Internet community is left mostly to its own devices when it comes to regulation as it is a relatively new medium

For such a commercially significant medium, the Internet is surprisingly chaotic. Compared to most industries, regulation of the Internet is minimal. The main reasons for such a lack of regulation is the need for growth and the immaturity of the medium - the Internet has only been commercially important for the past five years. The US government, for example, opposed the imposition of taxes for online business on the grounds that it would stifle the growth that e-commerce needs at this early stage.

Nevertheless, there are some organisations that do contribute to standardising the Internet and protecting users from those people that try to misuse it. One of the most important issues for the Internet community is to support diversity while at the same time ensuring that the underlying technology is standardised enough to present a universally available experience.

There are two main parties responsible for standardisation:

  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is responsible for working on some of the underlying communications technologies used on the Internet. For example, it has been working on quality of service standards that will enable data, such as voice and video, to be delivered more reliably.

  • The World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C) handles the software side of things. The group is responsible for ratifying and maintaining the XML standard and associated technology definitions, for example. W3C, which was set up in 1994, was responsible for defining HTML, the basic language in which Web pages are written.

    While the consortium is also interested in exploring legal and commercial issues raised by the Internet, it stops short of defining legal standards or governing the type of content that can be displayed. Nevertheless, it has been active in producing technologies that help content providers regulate their own sites.

    Content checks

    The Platform for Internet Content Selection (Pics) content was designed as a label management system, enabling content providers to clearly describe the nature of their sites, including a rating for adult content. This approach relies on the self-regulation, as opposed to governmental intervention.

    Similarly, the Internet Watch Foundation was set up in 1996 as an industry-funded body to address the problem of illegal material on the Internet. It uses a mixture of techniques to control such content in the UK, including a hotline to report criminal content, support for international rating and filtering developments, and general educational activities to inform Internet users about the potential dangers.

    Governments have tried to get involved in these issues. In October, the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act became law. This can force Internet service providers to monitor the data that passes through their servers. This will enable authorities to find out who is downloading criminal content from the Internet.

    In the US, the government has attempted to intervene in various ways, initially trying to pass the Communications Decency Act, and then passing the Child Online Protection Act, which makes it illegal to provide harmful material to minors.

    While governments and industry bodies alike try to keep the Internet clean, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is busy regulating the ownership of domain names on the Internet.

    As the commercial importance of the Internet has grown, cyber squatters have capitalised on domain names by registering other companies' names on the Net and then offering the URLs for sale. Icann was set up as a non-profit organisation to handle the administration of top-level domain names and dispute resolution policies. It has based its policy on the research of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo). You can check out the policy at

    Domain name disputes are a serious issue for many companies, especially given the rise of parody Web sites, which mimic existing URLs but carry negative connotations. Enter into your browser for an example of a site that has appropriated the URL for its own ends.

    Of course, domain names are not the only intellectual property on the Internet. Regulation of digital content, such as music, text and images, is becoming big business. Once again, the industry seems to be taking such issues into its own hands, producing standards for digital rights management. But Wipo has released two treaties containing rules that bring its existing international copyright guidelines into the Internet age. These are the Wipo Copyright Treaty and the Wipo Performances and Phonograms Treaty. Nevertheless, much intellectual property law has yet to be tested on the Internet - take the lawsuit between the Recording Industry Association of America and Napster.

    It is clear, in spite of government intervention to stop criminal activity on the Internet, the e-commerce community is left to its own devices when it comes to industry regulation. The Internet is a clear example of a capitalist medium, in which individuals take advantage of existing opportunities, and are encouraged to create new ones by developing new business models. The hands-off approach of most governments in the free world to the Internet will be condemned and praised, but it is unlikely to change.

    Spam spoils the show

    Spam is one of the biggest barriers to e-commerce on the Internet. Sending unsolicited e-mail for commercial gain is a cause of huge irritation among Internet users who might otherwise be willing to buy products online. The US Congress recently passed anti-spam legislation in the form of the Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act. It imposes a legal requirement for an accurate return address on spam mail, and also makes it illegal to continue sending mail to someone who has asked to be removed from a distribution list. How such an Act will be policed is open to question.

    In the European Union, member states must implement the E-commerce Directive by January 2002. This defines the use of "opt-out" lists, meaning that e-mail users have to explicitly tell an appointed list administrator that they do not want to be sent unsolicited commercial e-mail. Spammers must then respect the list.

    Many groups, such as the not-for-profit anti-spam organisation EuroCAUCE, have been vying for an "opt-in" list, where spammers can only send e-mail to people who have specifically asked for it. In July, a proposal was submitted to replace an existing directive, 97/66/EC. The proposal would extend the anti-spam rules to include an opt-in system.

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