The Battles for the Internet

The InternetIt’s always interesting to think about how the Internet might change in the future and what it might become. It’s likely that the outcome of several current industry battles will determine the Internet we have five and ten years from now. Each of these conflicts is important in its own right; taken together they add a lot of uncertainty about where we are headed.

Ad Blocking vs Advertisers: One fairly recent battle is between ad blocking technology and those who make a living through web advertising. Today much of what we think of as the free internet is paid for through advertising placed on web pages. Very few people like the ads on the Internet, particularly as they get more customized and individualized and are aimed at each of us personally.

But a really large portion of the things that most us like on the web are paid for by ads. That includes things like social media sites and news services. Right now the ad blockers are gaining the upper hand. I saw a recent report that over 200 million users worldwide are now using ad blocking software, and it’s growing fast. And companies like Apple are building ad blocking into their OS, probably in an attempt to poke a stick in the eye of some of their other large rivals.

If advertisers don’t figure out a way to fight back, then the revenues that can be made on the web will be on a fast and downward spiral, and that is going to effect a lot of web businesses. But advertisers are already working on ways to punch through ad blockers and so this is likely to morph into a continuous cat and mouse game as the two sides each get the upper hand at times.

Hackers vs Web Security: For the last several years large companies have sat nervously in the crosshairs of the hackers who are working hard to take them down. But to a large degree a lot of the tactics used by hackers in the past have been defeated by web security companies and it’s no longer easy to breach firewalls by brute force. But hackers are probably more successful than ever today because they have shifted tactics and now concentrate on tricking insiders to let them into a network.

This is a critical battle, and big companies look at what happened to Sony and they now understand how devastating it can be to lose control of their network. The companies that fight hacking are getting better all of the time and they will find ways to beat the current tactics deployed by the hackers. But unless we someday migrate to a web run by a superintelligent AI, it’s likely that this battle is going to go on for a long time.

Surveillance vs Encryption: The NSA revelations opened a lot of eyes about how vulnerable we all are to surveillance. We now know that governments can gather huge amounts of information about us, and many people are worried about how access to our data is going to lead to a government abuse of power. But perhaps even worse is that large corporations are gathering data about us, too, and unlike the government they are more likely to immediately put that knowledge to use.

But there is a counter-movement working to make us safer against surveillance. This involves encryption but also in developing safer ways to communicate such as through bit-chains. Surveillance relies on being able to capture data at central nodes, and so perhaps having an Internet that no longer uses centralization will reduce the amount of knowledge that can be gained from us. Ideally, the outside world would only learn what we choose to give out about ourselves, but for now the surveillance forces are winning this battle.

Open Internet vs State-specific Control. Sparked by those same NSA revelations we now see governments looking at ways to protect their citizens and themselves from outside surveillance. China has already done this in an extreme way and it looks like Russia might be headed down the same path as China. But half of the countries in Europe are looking at ways to keep the data generated in their country safe within their country. If we end up with an Internet that is different in each country, with pockets behind different firewalls, we will have killed much of what is great about the current Internet.

I don’t think anybody can predict where each of these trends are going with any certainty, and it’s hard to say how the various battles affect each other.  There is a big chance that the Internet of ten years from now will be a very different place than today. There will be some ugliness along the way and we are going to keep seeing major hacker success bringing down companies. But none of these issues is insoluble and there is also the chance that over time we will end up with an Internet far safer than today’s.

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