- The web is on the brink of explosive development -- but if business doesn't develop proper safeguards for security, privacy, and reliability, governments will step in with unfortunate results.
That was the resounding message in Berlin Tuesday, where corporate executives met for a workshop entitled "Security, Privacy, and Reliability of the Next Generation internet," sponsored by the Global Internet Project, a group of industry representatives interested in fostering the growth of the internet.
"We are at a critical juncture," says Paul Gudonis, chairman and chief executive officer of Genuity. The growth of a next generation internet that is a "ubiquitous, always-on, broadband connection to the rest of the world" presents great opportunities, he says, but also great challenges. In the past year, he says, high-profile hacking cases, viruses, and government attempts to control allegedly illegal content have all raised questions about the freedom of the internet from undue regulation.
"This is a good time for dialogue: while the commercial internet is still young," he says.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt says the next generation internet, in which everyday devices will be increasingly networked, will pose much greater reliability, security, and privacy concerns than the current Net, because people will be much more dependent on it in daily life.
"It will be a far more pressing part of our lives than the e-mail or web of today," he says. If the public isn't convinced that the Net is reliable -- even more so, say, than the electrical grid of today -- then governments will be tempted to regulate it.
Similarly, he adds, an internet which is "essentially always connected" raises far more security concerns than one which people access via dial-up modems. "When we are all there constantly, security concerns are going to grow very fast." And new technology, such as positioning and navigating systems, raise a specter of constant surveillance. "Will there be a possibility to very actively locate individuals all the time, and store this information essentially forever?"
Bildt urged businesses to find solutions that will reassure the public about these issues, in order to avoid heavy-handed government intervention. "If people believe the next generation internet makes privacy impossibly, I think there are major problems ahead," he says.
David Farber, chief technologist of the US Federal Communications Commission, says he doesn't know of anyone at his agency who wants to regulate the internet. "Being able to control what the citizen sees is not conducive to a democratic society," he says.
But he warns that lawmakers will be tempted to act if safeguards are not built into the next generation internet from the very beginning. "You can't retroactively decide security and reliability into systems. You can (only) patch them ... Here we have an opportunity to start from the bottom."
"Privacy is a major problem. Citizens around the world are scared about this," he says. Today's technology makes feasible a scenario out of George Orwell's novel "1984," about a totalitarian system, he says. "We know what you're saying, reading, watching, maybe even thinking. That's a dangerous world. It can't be solved easily, but we can make it clear to people that there are solutions." If business doesn't meet this challenge, he said, the internet may end up restricted to a "couch-potato" style system for delivering passive content -- or people will simply refuse to use the technology, out of fear.