Ghosts of the Internet

Artwork: Chip Taylor
For my closing column of 2011, I thought a Christmassy play might be appropriate …

[Scene 1: Enter the Ghost of Internet Past; he looks exactly like Bill Gates and very tired. He lugs an Osborne 1 on stage and looks for a phone jack.]

Hi. I'm the Ghost of Internet Past – you can find me hanging out in alt.internet.ghosts when my 19.2kbps dial-up connection is working.

So, what do you want to know? How we got here? Sure … in the beginning there was Al Gore and he … nah, I'm just kidding you. I started out in '69 with really, really slow connections between four universities.

The computer wonks were all excited about me, added a few more nodes and, hey presto, soon there was a real network. Of course all of the stuff on the 'Net at that time was all high falutin' and academic. I had hardly any of the, er, "juicy" stuff the 'Net's got today (Pamela Andersen rendered in text is just not the same).

I got TCP/IP in '74, DNS in '83, T-1 links by '85, the World Wide Web and T-3 links in '92, and the Mosaic Web browser in '93. By '94 people were ordering Pizza Hut online.

Those days were great! It was all happening, it was experimental, unknown, exciting, and nobody had any real idea what was coming. Sure there were politics and commercial stuff, but compared to today, it was all very techie. Back then, n00bs were rare. Today, well, I'm exhausted. I'll leave to Mr. Happenin' Now …

[Scene 2: Enter the Ghost of Internet Present; he looks exactly like Steve Jobs and carries an iPhone and an iPad.]

Thanks Internet Past. Greetings. I'm the Ghost of Internet Present … on Twitter I'm @ghostinow … get it? "iNow"? Oh, never mind.

So, here we are, the 'Net of 2010, and a fine thing it is. Somewhere between 1.4 and 1.8 billion unique individuals worldwide will have used the Internet in 2010 and every business of any consequence (and many that aren't) now has an online presence and the mobile Internet is growing way faster than the desktop Internet ever did. And who's at the forefront of that charge? Yep, you guessed it: Apple.

But what's so striking is how the 'Net has morphed from the old days of being driven by technical advances that my friend, the Ghost of Internet Past, recalls through being propelled by commercial motives to today when the most powerful force shaping the 'Net is politics.

Illustration: Jeffrey Pelo
We've seen the impact of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), net neutrality and Wikileaks, and now the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) is looming. We're moving, rapidly, towards a time when our first amendment rights could be trampled on by any number of people and organizations with agendas that are antithetical to transparency, openness, privacy and democracy.

In short, we're at a turning point, a critical time when the public, business, governments, criminals (did I just repeat myself?), and the military-industrial complexes of many nations are all fighting for control of the Internet.

From my lofty, spectral position of the Ghost with the Most, I can see that most of you are more concerned about your next eggnog than your rights. You wanna know what will happen if you don't wake up?

[Enter the Ghost of Internet Future; he looks like Mark Zuckerberg.]

Hi. I'm the Ghost of Internet Future. Before I show you the future, I'll need to see your Internet access license, check that against your retinal scan, then you'll need to fill out this pre-access survey from your ISP (sponsored by Google), agree to these terms and conditions in this EULA, have your computer audited for the "We're here to help you" anti-piracy assurance program required by the RIAA/MPAA Oversight Office of the Justice Department, and enable your NSA anti-terrorist verification monitor.

You don't have any of that stuff yet? Oh, of course, that's in your future. OK, no problem, when you get all of that then I can show you what the 'Net will be like. We'll see if you're ready next Christmas.

[Exit all stage left.]

Gibbs is festive in Ventura, Calif. Your ho-ho-ho-ing to backspin@gibbs.com.

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