Getting Wired: Business will be caught in the battle for Net freedom

Users will suffer as corporate bullying over online practices increases.

Users will suffer as corporate bullying over online practices increases.

This column marks the eighth anniversary of Getting Wired. If it is extraordinary now how distant those heady early days seem, it is even more striking how profound the reaction against the optimism and creativeness of that time has grown in the last year.

While the rest of the UK economy seems to be getting by or better, high tech remains firmly stuck in the doldrums. Nowhere is this more evident than in the online sector, which once seemed at worst to be able to do no wrong, and at best to be the panacea for all business ills.

Amidst all this gloom, however, there are a few encouraging signs. Amazon.com looks as if it may at last have sorted out its business model; eBay goes from strength to strength; and Google - by now more or less established as the unofficial heart of the World Wide Web - not only continues to provide its excellent service free of charge, but has begun a programme of expansion without diluting its vision or dissipating its core strengths.

XML, too, has made notable advances this year. Once so strange and exotic, it has become almost as standard as HTML - to the extent that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has even made it the mission of one of its working groups "to complete the transition from HTML to XHTML", the reformulation of HTML as an application of XML.

Despite such progress, this last year has also seen the W3C lose something of its role as the wise, disinterested oracle of all things Web. Notably, the organisation suggested that companies might be prepared to offer patented technologies for use by the online community provided they could charge licence fees. The fig-leaf for this shameful shift in policy was the requirement that such licensing should be on "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (Rand) terms .

Although the furore this provoked was enough to force the W3C to tone down its proposals, they are by no means dead. Worse, they are but a small part of a larger and profound shift that is taking place in all sectors of the Internet world.

Emboldened by the disarray of the proponents of the new economy, some of the most reprobate old-economy companies and sectors are attempting not only to regain terrain lost to the online revolution of the late 1990s, but even to win new territory from their weakened foes.

The Rand proposal was fairly mild compared to other goings-on in the world of copyrights and intellectual property. The past year has seen the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) take an increasingly aggressive attitude towards those it believes have infringed its copyrights.

More recently, a bill introduced in the US House of Representatives, based on an idea from the RIAA, would give copyright owners the right to break into the computers of P2P (peer-to-peer) users if it is suspected that they may have infringed copyright. This is the online equivalent of vigilantism, and provides the perfect symbol of just how far the mood has shifted away from that encapsulated in the "content wants to be free" mantra blithely invoked during the early years of the Internet boom.

It is hard to tell which is cause and which is effect, but it is striking that this upsurge in corporate bullying is taking place against a background of ever-greater deployment of the only credible check and balance to the more rapacious kinds of corporatism in the digital sphere: free software.

Not only have top-flight free programs such as Openoffice, Mozilla, Ogg Vorbis and Eclipse been released to growing acclaim this year, but more and more companies and national governments are waking up to the broader benefits of open source software beyond the obvious attraction of its low purchase price.

As a result, the next year promises to be an important one, as the forces of reaction try to clamp down on the Internet, while free software zealots try to defend its liberties. Unfortunately, business is likely to find itself in the middle of this intellectual and legal battlefield, with all the resulting uncertainty that this implies.

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