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.
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.
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