Superhighway To Hell

Internet Evolution founder Stephen Saunders believes everything you think you know about the future of the Internet is wrong. Read why, and join our discussion by leaving a comment at the bottom of his open letter to readers.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 18, 2010

6 Min Read

Dear InformationWeek Reader:

I regret to inform you that everything you think you know about the future of the Internet is wrong. Sorry.

Further, there are only two opinions about the future: mine, which is right, and "everybody else's," which is not right.

The conventional wisdom is positive--giddy, really--about what the Internet holds for the planet's expanding connected population. It envisions an Internet where users worldwide enjoy speedy, inexpensive Internet connections. As this new society develops, national identities are subsumed by knowledge into a global community whose users are enabled, even emancipated, by the Internet and the information it carries.

But suppose for a moment this is not the future. What if the "wisdom of crowds" turns out to be the ignorance of the masses? In fact, what if the Internet is a "really bad thing" for the world and its population?

Decline And Fall (Mainly Fall)

The Internet of the late 20th century was chaotic--an unregulated, borderless virtual entity that grew organically based on U.S. technological innovation and its ability to allow users to anonymously access vast amounts of information for free.

The media have been silent on the possibility that a network so vast could be anything other than a great enabling force for mankind. But the journey to the Internet's darker side has already begun with a game-changing addition to the Web's most popular application: search.

Search engines like Google and Bing, social networks like Facebook, computer software developers like Microsoft, and e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay now monitor and store information about users' search activity and use this data to create profiles about who the searchers are (identity), where they are (location), what they want (preferences), how much money they have (financial status), and what they are likely to do or buy next (predictive analysis).

These profiles are already valuable to companies looking to target consumers in the virtual world with advertising for their real-world goods. But as the Internet replaces traditional supply chains, these profiles are set to become an asset of almost inestimable worth--the equivalent of the commodities that powered the Industrial Revolution.

At this point, a phenomenon called "search inversion" takes place. Today's Internet search function morphs from being a useful tool for users to search for products to an essential tool for companies to search for customers.

User profiles become assets owned by the companies that developed them or, eventually, commodities to be bought and sold on "profile markets" or "identity exchanges"--the digital DNA equivalents of the financial and commodities exchanges on which stocks, oil, and gold are traded.

Companies like Google and Facebook are pioneers in the areas of profiling and search inversion, but the Internet's nature (distributed, standards-based, open to all) makes it easy for others to follow their lead. Any Web company that owns servers storing user information can participate in profiling, as can any network service provider providing the pipes.

Profiling will take off fast for another reason: It's legal. It doesn't have to be an invasive activity. It's not necessary, for example, to read e-mails or listen in on Skype calls in order to create prescient profiles. "Patterning"--or knowing which sites users visit, with whom they communicate, and how often--provides companies with more than enough data to create a valuable user profile.

By the middle of this decade, profiling will be commonplace. By the end of 2020 it will be the basis of a new industry, the Outernet, which in economic terms will have outgrown the commercial value of the Internet itself.

The most immediate casualty of profiling is the hallmark of the 20th century Internet: anonymity (aka user privacy). The Internet of this century will be defined by identity.

Internet users are already hastening the end of anonymity by providing free Web services--Facebook, Bebo, Pandora, etc.--with detailed personal information, paying little or no attention to these services' terms of use. These legally binding contracts provide Web operators with paramount rights to users' private information, sometimes including ownership of intellectual property posted to social networks, even after users are no longer site members.

What can users do to protect their privacy? The most obvious option is to not use the Internet--at all. However, this becomes impractical once all digital information is consolidated over the Internet. Not just e-mail, either. Your telephone ceases to function. Your TV won't work, either.

According to the most recent projections, by 2029 only one-third of the world's population will still be waiting for their chance to connect to the Internet. But the other 64% will not only be connected to the Internet, they will be manacled to it.

This invasion of privacy has manifest implications for civil liberties, making the brouhaha over ID cards in the United Kingdom or over Facebook's privacy policy seem like tea-cup squalls. But there's little to suggest that governments around the world are thinking about the implications, or planning to intervene with restrictions, particularly considering the polarity in the positions between those who favor regulation and those Internet Libertarians (aka Libernetters) who regard it with the same level of opprobrium as opponents of changes to the Second Amendment.

But Wait--There's More!

This is just the beginning. Let us sally forth, my friends, in our Chinese-made publishing time machine, to the year 2029. It is now exactly 40 years after the invention of the World Wide Web. The Internet has completed its metamorphosis to Outernet, a transformation marked by two tipping points that occur within a few years of each other:

First, the Internet's primary role changes to that of surveillance network. The devices connected to the Internet whose function is to observe users via sensors, probes, spyware, and cameras now outnumber the devices that users employ to look at Internet content. The Internet is watching you.

Second, the Internet profiling industry has matured. For the first time, the monetary value of the profiles about users exceeds the value of the digital information (music, television, gaming, business data) stored on the Internet itself.

At this point, the Internet has become a sophisticated targeting system for companies to sell "stuff" to consumers, for governments to keep track of citizens, and for law enforcement to track illicit activity. In commercial terms, it will be an Internet where the user becomes the used.

The Internet of 2029 will provide the foundation of a new information-based society--one over which all of the world's information, entertainment, and communications travel, but it also will have attained an unprecedented level of visibility into the lives of this global society's population, including the ability to anticipate individuals' needs, desires, and actions before they are even aware of them.

Is this really the future of the Internet? I think it's close. You probably disagree.

All we know now is that the Internet is a force that no company, government, or individual can control. Like the development of the original Internet itself, the Outernet will arise organically, with an almost palpable disregard for the posturing of those who claim to know the future of communications technology. And that includes the both of us.

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