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The tangled Internet: Is it time for a new one?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 2004

By some counts, the Internet turned 35 years old this fall. But far from entering middle age, it seems to be growing into a rebellious teenager who has no idea what he will be when he grows up.

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It could become a safer, more secure medium running 1,000 times as fast as today. Or it could turn into a delinquent's paradise, where spam, scams, viruses, and pornography drive legitimate users away. The Internet, some observers say, could collapse in the next few years under the strain.

Even if it survives, the soul of the Internet is up for grabs, other experts say. Growing concerns about security and commerce threaten its traditional openness.

"Some of the fundamental precepts built into the original Internet are no longer true," says Jonathan Zittrain, cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Originally set up as a way for scientists and academics to exchange ideas, the Internet developed as an open system that encouraged collaboration and assumed that the people who used the system were who they said they were. Early Internet users were much more concerned about "some pesky, centralized overseer who would rain on their parade rather than some out-of-control malcontent who was technically skilled enough to try to disrupt the network," he says.

Part of the problem is the increasing volume of spam, digitized scams, and viruses. Another part stems from the major fight waged by traditional businesses, such as music companies and movie studios, over intellectual rights to digital content.

"One of the ways [the companies] are going to fight is to attempt to close off the openness of the Net," Professor Zittrain says.

Last month, for example, the recording industry filed 761 new lawsuits against individuals for trading copyrighted music files over the Internet.

Add to this the fact that the personal computers connected to the Net were themselves designed in an open way - for innovation, not security - and you have something of "a perfect storm" of disruption that is going to require much more than just tinkering around the edges to save the Internet, he says.

Will the system really collapse under the strain? Most Internet experts don't think so. While concerned about the dark side, they're far more optimistic.

Long way to grow

The Internet still "has a very long way to grow," says Leonard Kleinrock, one of the people who was around for its birth. "In some ways, we're still in the Stone Age."

On Oct. 29, 1969, as part of a project backed by the US military, Professor Kleinrock sought to send a message from a computer at the University of California at Los Angeles to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in northern California. There were no reporters present, no microphones or TV cameras. It was 10:30 p.m.

"We weren't as smart as Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, or Neil Armstrong," says Kleinrock, who still teaches computer science at UCLA. The group didn't have a message planned ahead like "What hath God wrought?" or "a giant leap for mankind." The idea was to type "Log in."

The team got as far as "L-o" before the system crashed at SRI. "So what was the first message on the Internet?" Kleinrock says. " 'Lo,' as in 'Lo and behold!' We couldn't have planned it any better."

In the future, he sees "smart spaces" or "intelligent spaces" in which nearly any object - even the walls - will be hooked to the Net and aware of its surroundings. "When I walk into a room, it will know it's me. I can talk to it.... I'll be able to interact in a very simple, physical way," Kleinrock says.

But the Internet of the future will be as full of surprises as it has always been, Kleinrock suggests.

"Nobody predicted the Web," he says. Or the impact of e-mail. Or instant messaging. Or Napster. "Those are the things that are hard to predict, and that's where I think a lot of the growth of the Internet will occur - with these magnificent new applications that nobody thought about that the young people of this era are going to develop."

Internet2, which today operates over the proprietary Abilene Network instead of the open Net, moves 1,000 times as fast as a typical broadband connection. It's being used by everyone from astronomers, who can remotely control telescopes with it, to master teachers who can see and hear distant students in high fidelity.