Friday, 20 November 2009

The battle for control of the internet

A couple of relatively unrelated news stories caught my eye yesterday. On one hand, Peter Mandelson announced amendments to UK copyright laws that appear to put the onus of illegal download prevention onto ISPs (reluctantly) and lawyers (eagerly). On the other, Google released more detail on what Chrome OS is going to look like when it launches next year.

The signs are that the battle for control of the internet is picking up pace. Copyright owners seem to have persuaded the government that the 20th century is worth saving, and that ISPs are the people to police it for them. Which aside from being a bit like blaming the Department of Transport for every speeding offence, is also something that we should be very worried about. Britain already has an outdated infrastructure for broadband: BT's copper wires will have to be replaced before we can get anywhere near the always-on HD quality entertainment that is possible over cable, and this will take significant investment, either in cabling or in much higher speed wireless for all. All of this costs money (lots of money), which will not be forthcoming if ISPs are having to spend their time trying to police a system of copyright that was effectively written in the dark ages. In a month that both Finland and Spain have made access to broadband a basic right of their citizens, the UK's short-termist approach has the potential to harm the country's knowledge economy for a generation.

All of this is very serious, and I suggest that if you agree then you join The Pirate Party and the Open Rights Group to help protest. However, the idea that the internet should be open access and open source has some pretty powerful support too. Google are a bigger deal than any content owner both in terms of financial muscle and political influence. And Google's big opportunity is more internet access for everyone all the time. This is what Ben Parr at Mashable calls the Google Revenue Equation:

Revenue = Amount of Time on the Web

It's that simple: their ad business is so effective at monetising the internet that they can afford to make everything else free. Email, browsers, mobile OS, storage, video, office software, GPS, mapping, etc. And not just free, but as good as the paid for equivalent. So the launch of their operating system, a replacement for Windows (that will be free, and probably as good as the paid for equivalent) is a big deal. Not just because of the potential to cut the heart out of the Microsoft empire, but also because Chrome OS is open source and fundamentally supports the idea that information wants to be free (because Google know how to manipulate and organise information better than anyone else. Information is what makes people spend time online. Time online = revenue). So although at a personal level we might not trust everything that Google are doing with our data, they are probably the biggest ally that anyone who wants a free and open internet, and is in favour of the UK knowledge economy, can have.


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