A year ago I wrote that 2011 would be a year in which the Internet would "be under a multi-pronged attack that threatens to change it irrevocably in ways that may destroy much of the Internet's potential." Well, 2011 has come and mostly gone, and it turned out that my pessimism may have been misplaced but not invalid.
The FCC vote I referred to in last year's column turned out to be generally good for the Internet but it did not take long for a telecom carrier to sue the FCC asserting that the commission had no power to tell the carrier to treat its customers fairly. My worry about the power of the copyright industry, at least in the U.S., was a bit premature but not misplaced.
A GLANCE BACK: 25 top network and IT industry news stories of 2011
Congress is now debating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), laws explicitly designed to destroy the Internet infrastructure in an effort to preserve the obsolete business models of copyright giants. Congress, so far, has proved to be immune to the protests of the people who designed, built and run the Internet (here and here). It seems like the only things Congress can see are the parts of the Internet that their contributors run -- the underlying wires and the content that is a small part of what flows over the Internet.
We should soon know who wins this contest, the Internet or one of the minor players in the Internet ecosphere -- the copyright industry. And if the industry wins in Congress we shall then see where President Obama's loyalty lies -- with the Constitution he once taught or with the industry that donates money to his campaign. A ray of hope for a good outcome comes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and Vice President Joe Biden's statements in favor of Internet freedom. But money too often speaks louder to politicians than justice during an election year.
The fate of the Internet outside the U.S. has been clearer, at least in spots. China has not been all that subtle about its belief that an unfettered Internet is a threat to the country. Throughout the Arab world, governments found out that China might just have a point. Europe, in general, despite the feelings of the president of France, has generally come down on the side of Internet freedom.
What does 2012 look like for people who care about Internet freedom? At this point it is not clear. What is clear is that complacency on the part of the pro-Internet crowd would be a very bad idea.
The year ahead will be full of challenges to Internet freedom. It will start with Congress getting back to work after the holidays, always a potential threat, but in this case they will get back to doing the copyright industry's bidding with the SOPA and PIPA bills. The year will end with the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December. Among the proposals being floated for consideration is one that would put the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with its country-based decision process, in charge of most of the Internet, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society.
In between, there will be a continuing parade of threats. I fully expect we will have more governments thinking that the lesson to be learned from Egypt's Internet shutdown was that the shutdown was not done soon enough since it did not stop the fall of the government. I also anticipate seeing more countries legalizing the cutoff Internet access for people and companies based on accusations of copyright violation, rather than involving any due process -- this is what the SOPA and PIPA bill would do and what U.S. diplomats have been pressuring other countries around the world to do. Meanwhile more countries will want to outlaw Internet use by anyone who wants to have a grownup conversation or to access information for grownups.
In other words, 2012 will be more of the same, so don't fall asleep if you want to have a recognizable Internet in 2013.
Disclaimer: Harvard had no input to this un-Happy New Year's message.