NextGen Internet: This Time, No Clean Slate

Last time around, DARPA had a clean slate to work with when it commissioned the Internet. Building the Next Generation of the Internet will be like a design competition to renovate a building that's in use, with a Zoning Board to satisfy, a hostile Neighborhood Association, and who knows what else.

The news has been full of stories about the Next Generation of the Internet: the buildout of the formal Semantic Web as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee, the rise of ad hoc social tagging sites, and multiple other visions, trends and wish lists, not to mention the commissioning of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) under the U.N.’s World Summit on the Internet Society (WSIS) initiative, which I’ve been reporting on for some time.

Yesterday there was news of another ambitious initiative

to remake the Internet for the future. This one comes from the National Science Foundation, would cost $300 million (not yet obtained), and would “focus on security, ‘pervasive computing’ environments populated by mobile, wireless and sensor networks, control of critical infrastructure and the ability to handle new services that can be used by millions of people.”

All of which sound like good and necessary goals. But there are other initiatives in operation as well (the article mentions Internet2, LambdaRail and PlanetLab, or example), each with its own goals.

The existence of so many initiatives raises important questions, such as: Who will decide which ones happen? Who should be entitled to have a say? What are the criteria for making those decisions? Who will resolve any architectural conflicts?

A simple answer to these questions would be “Why is this different from any other set of standards that someone chooses to create, and the market decides whether or not to adopt?”

There are at least a few ways in which it is different. The first time around, these issues simply did not exist. But now, the Internet is heavily used and the world is increasingly dependent upon it — it’s become more like a utility than a commercial product or service, more akin to a telecommunications service (which, of course, in many ways it is). And telecommunications services have for many years been regulated by governments, in part because of their importance to society.

Second, the United Nations has already identified the Internet as a global resource as part of the WSIS initiative. Similarly, the venerable International Telecommunication Union, the global, government-participation arbiter of telecommunications that missed out on the party when the Internet got off the ground, is interested in asserting its influence. It’s not likely that this trend will end here.

Third, while there is plenty of precedent for standards organizations working things out among themselves when compatibility and similar issues arise, society and governments may not be content to leave this task to such organizations.

Historically, in situations like these, government tends to step in, for better or worse. Will it happen here?

My guess is that it’s not a case of if, but when. The real question is how.

[For a very readable, extremely interesting article on the virtues of unstructured approaches (such as social tagging) over formal ontologies, see Clay Shirky’s Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags]