Internet seeks direction on 'highway'

June 18, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Special to The Sun

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- As traffic on the global "information highway" accelerates, its builders are beginning to worry about who will be the traffic cop and who gets to sit in the toll booth.

The Internet, a worldwide computer network linking thousands of smaller networks -- and the probable foundation for the information superhighway of the future -- is having growing pains. The network is doubling in size every year, and users are wondering how to pay for and manage such rapid growth as the system shifts the balance of its activities away from the academic community that founded it.

"This is no longer the closed little club of academia," said Vinton Cerf, president of the Internet Society, a nonprofit group that oversees development of the network. "The Internet's character is changing. It's like a small city that has grown up into L.A. You find that you don't know everyone anymore and you have to lock your door. And some people don't like that."

The direction of the Internet -- and according to many users, the demon that will compromise or destroy it -- is commercialization. As the network grows in size and sophistication, more and more traffic comes from private companies, not from traditional users -- professors, researchers and students.

At a worldwide conference of Internet users and managers here this week, members of the various constituencies hashed out their differing views of the network's future.

Although the Internet is not yet the much-vaunted information superhighway that will bring 500 television channels, shopping, banking, newspapers -- you name it -- into American homes someday, it is in fact a pretty well-functioning electronic artery of sorts, where those with the right equipment can get many similar services.

Already, an estimated 30 million users hook into the Internet to send and receive electronic mail, look up information in thousands of databases, view photographs and videos, find travel information and weather reports -- all via their personal computers or the networks they use on the job.

"This is an exploding phenomenon, and just coping with that is hard," said Mr. Cerf. "There's a genuine worry that the availability of the system is going to be negatively affected by its provision on a commercial basis."

To a large extent, the commercialization of the network has already happened. By some estimates, more than half of all traffic on the Internet is commercial, and several companies are experimenting with advertising-based services available to users.

The problem is that many current users don't really bear the cost of the services they receive. Their university or their employer pays for the link into the system, and much of the information available is in the public domain or is provided by other users via informal computerized "bulletin boards" or discussion groups.

"A lot of people get up in arms and say that the Internet is free right now," said Tim O'Reilly, who publishes an on-line magazine that is paid for by advertising. "The stuff that's free is put together on a pretty amateur basis. Really, there's no real free information. There's just subsidized information."

An adjunct to the issue of commercialization is the question of how to finance the rapid growth the network is experiencing. Currently, even those individual users who pay for using the system often aren't charged according to their volume of use or the distance of the connection; So a 10-word E-mail message to a colleague in the next office would cost as much to send as a 10,000-word message to an overseas friend.

Telephone companies have for years been involved in the

Internet, providing the telecommunications links that tie the various parts of the network together. Many fear that if they gain too great a voice in the system, however, they may seek to move toward a more traditional model of usage-based pricing. And the interest that industry has in the Internet can be seen in the fact that the conference was sponsored by industry giants such as MCI, British Telecom and IBM, among others.

"The worry is that once those companies get into the business, they'll change the rules," Mr. O'Reilly said. "The fundamental fact of the Internet is that once you connect, you have access to the whole thing, and you can send and receive as much as you want."

There are very real limits, meanwhile, to the level of commercialization users are willing to accept. Because of the way the system developed as a government-funded and university-based resource, any advertising remains suspect, and unsolicited advertising -- electronic junk-mail -- is considered a gross breach of network etiquette.

A law firm recently sent an E-mail announcement to thousands of Internet users, offering its services in helping foreigners obtain U.S. residency permits. The firm was widely attacked for abusing the system, and users replied by "mail-bombing" the lawyers' E-mail address -- sending thousands of messages, causing a breakdown in the computer network that the firm uses.

"Most of the ways we're used to thinking about advertising just aren't going to work," said Janet Perry, who oversees cooperation with universities for Novell, Inc., a computer products maker. "Nobody has come up yet with a form of marketing that users will actually look at and that will be acceptable to the advertisers."

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