When two adjacent computers began to exchange data on September 2, 1969 in a UCLA lab, no one saw it as a giant step for humankind. The Internet started as a university project and was nurtured by visionary professionals and enthusiastic amateurs as an open access network for exchanging information and knowledge. A tremendous combination of idealism, creativity, and hard work, along with game-changing inventions in computing, has made the Internet what it is today. The ability to connect easily and communicate extensively and ‘the rewards of unanticipated opportunities’ are some of the benefits hundreds of millions of people around the world reap from this revolution. According to internetworldstats.com, a handy data source, the estimated number of Net users worldwide is 1.67 billion or about 25 per cent of the global population; this represents a growth of 360 per cent over 2000. The Future of Internet III, a survey of internet leaders and analysts conducted by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (2008), shows that there is much more technological innovation to come. This will advance the architecture and use of the Internet, with the mobile device becoming the primary device for online access. While there is no reason to doubt the basis of this optimism, the Internet faces several challenges today.
Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet guru, sees the ‘counter-revolutionary’ drive from ‘generativity’ — the greatest gift of the Internet — to a centrally controlled ‘appliancized network’ and ‘tethered’ appliances as the greatest concern. He believes the generative Internet can be preserved for everybody through new technologies and changed behaviour. The lack of ‘net neutrality’ is a barrier to healthy growth. The increasing presence of proprietary networks, the unwillingness of service providers to allow the free flow of ‘various forms of data traffic,’ and stiff pricing tend to discourage both use and innovation. The other side of the coin is that the generative Internet has perpetuated the ‘cult of the amateur,’ which tends to undermine its credibility. The way forward is not to hand over the World Wide Web to `experts’ — but to foster the collaborative nature of the vast creative space. The Internet faces serious security threats with juvenile behaviour, unethical hacking, and spamming far from overcome. Technology can help make the Internet a safer place but it must not become the basis for authoritarian controls. Developing countries, including India, are a long way from empowering their people through the Internet. Improved and accessible bandwidth and cheaper hardware hold the key to bringing the benefits of the Internet to the unconnected millions. The next generation Internet Protocol, which will provide a wider base for creating web addresses and facilitate Internet growth, can make a real difference to this situation — provided bold and progressive policies are pursued.