April 05, 2009

From Hell It Came: Will "Free" Destroy the Internet As We Know It?

Greetings. A truly scary horror story doesn't need to begin with a bang. Rather, some of the most bone chilling of sagas enter stage left with a whimper, then head inexorably toward a climax of terror through a series of seemingly innocent events and linkages. By the time a victimized protagonist realizes what's actually happening, it's usually too late for easy escape. The classic film Rosemary's Baby is a perfect example of this sort of scenario in action.

But whether horror arrives quietly from an icy comet in deep space, from a tiny bacterium on the wind, or via a swinging blade whose arc increases from barely perceptible high in the ceiling to a whooshing mass of steel slicing through flesh and bone, we don't always recognize fictional dangers at first glance.

Nor do we win awards as a species for understanding the risks in real-world situations until the optimum time for action has already passed. Like most other animals our primary focus is on short-term gains. This pretty much holds true in all aspects of life -- including our dealings with the Internet.

A number of recent events bring cause to wonder if some basic tenets of the Internet today aren't leading us toward some major disruptions that could themselves be plenty scary.

The specter of newspaper closings should be seen as a warning clarion call. Closing and threatened shutdowns aren't just affecting small towns anymore, but are moving into the most major of cities. One very recently terminated big city newspaper had its footprint firmly planted in three successive centuries.

When newspapers downsize or cease their normal operations, a great deal of journalistic talent typically vanishes at the same time. And this is something that we ignore at our own peril in the Internet world.

Relatively few Internet news sources are of true journalistic quality. Many bloggers -- myself included -- never took a single journalism class, and are really hard-core techies who got pulled into a policy analyst/commentator role over the years. While we're sometimes able to break new "headline" stories, we're often set on the trail of interesting material from mainstream journalists who have already done the initial legwork. As newspapers fade from the scene, "news" on the Internet could degenerate into an endless stream of corporate press releases and self-serving "pay to play" articles.

It is true that some shuttered papers valiantly have declared that they will continue in Web-only forms. But since the vast majority of online newspapers are free to viewers, where is their continuing revenue source in an age when Craigslist has decimated the value of traditional classified ads? How will those journalists continue to be paid for their work?

And this brings us directly to a fundamental question. Can so much Internet content and so many Internet services stay "free" to users forever? Speaking for myself, I never imagined in the early days of the ARPANET that decades later so much information would ever be available on a non-usage-sensitive basis. Free news, free search, free music, free videos -- and that's just the legitimately "no charge" stuff, I'm not even considering the illicit flows.

It seems to be largely a historical accident that it worked out this way. Early services were often started without charge as an introductory tactic, but with poor uptake for charged versions, and competitive pressures making it ever more difficult to succeed with paid service models, something of a snowball effect took hold. Various attempts at "micropayment" services have floundered.

The newspapers, initially offering their contents for free as an inducement toward physical paper subscriptions, have become trapped in this mode as increasing numbers of people simultaneously moved toward reading all of their news online -- and usually for free, of course! So many of us now view news as fungible -- and newspapers as "just so twentieth century" that any attempt to charge for general interest online news simply pushes those readers to competing free sources.

So we've ended up in a mostly advertiser-supported Internet world, much like commercial television and radio. But even the ad-based Internet may be threatened.

I routinely receive unsolicited, excited proclamations of the latest and greatest in Web site ad blocking plugins and programs, promising to expunge every ad -- from the most obnoxious pop-up flash displays to the most polite of text-based advertisements.

If ad blockers ever become routinely employed by most Internet users -- even assuming the cat-and-mouse technical battles that would then ensue, it is not inconceivable that the economic basis of the Internet as we know it today would be at risk.

The Internet will go on -- but it might look very different indeed, especially in terms of how much information individual Internet users could afford to access if they have to pay directly for most services. The disparity between the information rich and the information poor, which the Internet has moved toward eliminating, could once again well up into full bloom. For somebody has to pay for the data centers and circuits, for the software engineers and technicians, and for all the rest of the instrumentalities that make the Internet the wonder that it is.

It's natural enough to want "something for nothing" -- especially when we've gotten it that way all along. Starting to charge for anything that used to be free is always difficult. But the evil twin of "free" in some cases may be a vampire-like sucking dry of the very resources that provide our Internet sustenance.

We should be very careful about what we wish for. And we need to stay very alert for the seemingly unconnected events that start small, but can end up affecting us all in ways that most of us have not planned on, and are not prepared for ... much like that shimmering glint of razor-sharp steel moving slowly down from the ceiling, swinging ever more widely back and forth, back and forth, back and forth ...


Posted by Lauren at April 5, 2009 05:38 PM | Permalink
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