The future of the Internet is a non-trivial issue,11 in fact it is central to the future of productivity in most industries. It is an enabling technology, which means that the exchange of information on this open platform promises (and delivers) real efficiencies in the economy and society generally, as it helps collaboration and improvement.12 It is also socially enabling – whatever your view – for all the reasons encompassed in the expression ‘Web 2.0’ or ‘the participative web’.13 That is, it has become a virtual playground, classroom, laboratory and at its most basic – chatroom. The rise in the number of people using email, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, Skype, Instant Messaging and other applications has extended so far into mass participation that it has truly affected society and the economy in all its facets. Children, in particular, are now ‘born digital’ in many locales in developed society,14 and their access to the consumer Internet is an essential part of their development, as Pew Internet surveys and others increasingly show. Moreover, small businesses and solo home-based workers depend on this tool as a vital part of their participation in the economy.15 The promise of virtual worlds and massive online collaboration (not just the Web, but online gaming, Wikipedia-type knowledge sharing and transfer and other avatar environments including over-hyped but fascinating poster child of digital life, SecondLife) is to extend this pervasive impact of online environments even further in the coming decade.
The Internet matters far more than television or radio or the simple telephone, whatever technology debunkers may continue to claim. Of course it is true that many collaborators and innovators use very powerful Internet connections at school, university and in office environments. However, much of their out-of-work collaboration, and creativity and innovation, take place using consumer Internet connections via desktop computers, laptops, netbooks and smart 3G mobile phones. Therefore, the question of what happens to their ‘domestic’ Internet connection is vital. Yes, it should be faster, but should this speed increase be entirely to guarantee the existing ISPs’ phone quality and video service? How much of the increase should be ‘open’ to all Internet traffic, and how much a toll lane for reserved high-speed signals? Note that this open question is posed in terms of proportion, not absolutes. I state immediately that I do not believe in social or economic justifications either for barring any proprietary high-speed traffic at all, or for strict versions of net neutrality that would not allow any traffic prioritization. It appears to me that there is too much at stake to either expect government to supplant the market in providing higher-speed connections or for the market to continue to deliver openness without the most basic of policy and regulatory backstops to ensure some growth.