IRA FLATOW, host:
From NPR News in New York, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
What would you like to do on the Internet that you can't do now? Coming up, a look at the future of the Web. Will it remain a wild and woolly free-for-all place? Or will the people who sell you content and service decide to make it more like cable television, charging you for both the connection and the content, and who will decide?
Also, now that we've got Web casting, video-on-demand, and billions of baby pictures, will the information superhighway need to be widened to accommodate whatever that next big thing is? Plus, voice-over-IP, phoning over the Internet, is it right for you? We'll talk about the basics of making that switch after the break. Stay with us.
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FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill enforcing the idea of network neutrality on the Internet. Now that idea, that telecommunications companies who provide the wires that connect many of us to the Internet, should not be able to give some material preferential treatment as it travels over wires. Now this is a very important issue to you as a consumer and a user of the Internet, and it goes to a basic question about the Internet and its future.
Is it a network connection like an electrical hookup where you pay for the amount of stuff that gets sent to you? Or is it like a cell phone connection where the company at the other end of the line controls your service where, for example, you have no choice over which phone, which cell phone company you can dial into once you have that cell phone, so they control more of what you can do on the Internet?
This hour we're gonna be talking about the future of the Internet, from issues of legal control and governmental influence to the basic networking that holds the Internet connection together. Can the network continue to grow to take on new technologies? You know, we've got music and video and streaming, whatever. Who knows what Steve Jobs has got in store for us next? Or do developers need to scrap it altogether, come up with some sort of new idea for hooking us all and talking to us all together?
What do you think? What would you like to do on the Internet that you can't do now? How do you think the Internet should look 10 years from now? What would you like to be doing on it? What do you think it should be doing? And how should it, who should be making those decisions about what it should look like? Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. As always, you can surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com.
Tim Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University here in New York, and he's also co-author of the book Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World, just out from Oxford University Press. He joins me from our studios at member station WUCF in Orlando. Welcome to the program.
Professor TIM WU (Author, Who Controls the Internet?): Thank you.
FLATOW: John Horrigan is the associate director for research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. He joins us today by phone. Welcome to the program, John.
Mr. JOHN HORRIGAN (Pew Internet & American Life Project): Nice to be with you.
FLATOW: Thank you. Larry Peterson is professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. He's the director of the PlanetLab Consortium, an experiment into new networking technologies. He joins us from the studios on the Princeton campus. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor LARRY PETERSON (Princeton University): Good afternoon.
FLATOW: Let me ask you all, gentlemen. Let me ask you first, Larry. Ten years from now, what will the Internet look like? Take open that crystal ball for us. Can you look into it and tell us what you think the Internet will look like, what it should look like?
Prof. PETERSON: Well, what I hope it looks like is it's a place that you can securely do all sorts of online transactions. I think that's something that people are really worried about today, between the various fishing and hijacking of connections and so on, that we may, in fact, be reaching a point that the average user loses trust in the Internet, and that's clearly something we have to pay attention to over the next 10 years.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. I know Phil Zimmermann, who's one of the gurus of security on the Internet, has been talking about the hijacking of voice material, people talking to each other now. That could be a problem.
Prof. PETERSON: Absolutely.
Prof. PETERSON: This is a widespread problem. It's not just from the obvious, that you're not securely logging into your bank, but online content is under attack all the time from denial-of-service attacks and so on, so it's clearly an issue that we have to start paying attention to.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. Tim Wu, what do you think the Internet could and should look like 10 years from now?
Prof. WU: Well, it could look one of many ways. I think there's a basic debate that you mentioned earlier between something that's a much more centralized network than we have today, something more like cable television. And another vision, one which I think is better, which is rather like the Internet is today, just faster and capable of more things.
The Internet today is very decentralized. People come up with stuff, whether it's on YouTube or whether it's eBay or whether it's, you know, people's blogs, and I hope that it retains its character as a decentralized medium that basically everyone uses, that just has a lot more bandwidth, is a lot faster, and works a lot better.
FLATOW: Do we have to build a new backbone to the Internet?
Prof. WU: Do we have to build a new backbone? You know, I mean, the new - actually backbone, if you're interested in the technical side, backbone isn't where the problem is. There's a huge amount of capacity. Back in the 1990s, companies, even like Enron, built massive amounts of capacity into the backbone.
The real bottleneck, and this has been true since 1990, since actually about 1913, is the pipes and the wire that goes to people's homes, and the challenge over the next decade is whether we will really get the same kind of speeds on the backbone in the last mile, which is to say right to people's homes.
Right now, we have the same networks, the cable and the telephone networks, that we've had since the 1960s. You know, they've been updated a bit, but basically it's the same old stuff, and that's the big question over the next 10 years.
Mr. HORRIGAN: And I would add that there are great incentives to upgrade the network simple because that's what users want. When we look at our surveys at the Pew Internet Project, most people who are signing onto broadband - and now today 42 percent of Americans have high-speed connections at home - sign on for the speed. They don't tell us that the price fell and I decided to switch. The longer people stay online, the more they want to do online, and their demand for speed increases as they get more experience on the Internet.
FLATOW: Are they gonna forget about speed after a while and want the services more? I mean, will speed just become part of the product, for example, want the ability to watch television or stream video or do these kinds of high bandwidth things that they don't normally do now and that they're seeing other people doing, and, you know, they're, we're beginning to download old TV shows that we missed the night before on the Internet. So is that kind of thing they're gonna worry more about than the speed?
Mr. HORRIGAN: Well, I think they're gonna worry about both. People like to do those entertainment applications online, but one of the real markers of Internet user behavior, and it's a fairly common behavior along, across broadband Internet users, is what we call user-generated content. People like the speed in order to post things online about their lives, about what they're doing. They like to post online their own creativity.
Now, some of that stuff is not gonna be widely interesting to the world at large, but it's interesting to users and their social networks. So they're gonna want the entertainment services, but they're gonna want to continue to have an Internet that enables them to express themselves online.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Prof. WU: Right. If I could add to that. I mean...
Prof. WU: ...I think there's no doubt that people, you know, people would like more bandwidth but - and people would like more services, people like watching videos. They move, and you can see people walking around. But the question is who provides them?
And there's a basic philosophical divide between two approaches, one which is more like cable, which is basically what we've had since the '70s, which is a centralized entity like the phone company or the cable company and some producers create it, or what was just referred to, the kind of world where people just throw up random things and that's what people watch. And how you build the network, how the network gets built out will determine what kind of culture prevails. Something more like what the Internet's now, which is much more of a folky kind of culture where people watch really bad quality video 'cause they think it's funny or they read blogs almost as much as they'll read the New York Times. Or something which is more like the old media world where things like video are dominated by centralized decision makers. That's the philosophical battle behind net neutrality and a lot of other stuff going on right now.
FLATOW: Larry Peterson.
Prof. PETERSON: I'd just like to add that of course speed is always going to be an issue and users are certainly going to demand more services from the network. But there are going to be issues of ease of use, of trust, of I'm going to want to take the Internet with me wherever I go, that I'm always connected, I always access to my data and so on.
These, of course, are services. But, again, I get back to the issue of trust and that's going to become a very significant aspect of the consumer's view of the Internet.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Prof. WU: Sorry, can I step in?
Prof. WU: I don't completely disagree with that, but I want to disagree a little bit. People have been saying since the '90s that so many things wouldn't happen on the Internet because no one trusts the Internet. Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay, his whole founding principle was that, you know, people trust each other. And eBay has never been all that secure, but it's managed to be successful nonetheless.
And it is sort of surprising how many things, you know, how secure the blogs need to be, how much do you have to trust them? I think there's been a bit of surprise over the last decade of how many things have happened on the Internet, even though it's not as secure as some people might like. I think that's been a bit of surprise to people.
Prof. PETERSON: I think a lot agree with that.
Prof. WU: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Prof. PETERSON: So it's certainly the case that the Internet has just grown beyond expectations and people are depending on it despite all the security risks that are there. But on the other hand, what I see happening is what I would call the Internet fragmenting into gated communities.
And this is almost like the neutrality aspect of the issue, that there are places you just can't get to and the universal connectivity of the original Internet is deteriorating. Because of a lack of security built into the Internet your only recourse is to throw up all sorts of protections that are extremely suspicious of every bit of traffic that happens to fly by.
FLATOW: Can you give me an example?
Prof. PETERSON: So the example that I see firsthand is with a PlanetLab test bed that I run. We have researchers throughout the world inventing brand new services, the very kinds of services that we are imagining people wanting to use 10 years from now. And they deploy those on PlanetLab - let me just say for a second, what PlanetLab is, is 600 plus machines spread across the world, 35 countries, about 300 sites. And these researchers basically can use these machines as a point of presence for deploying whatever service, Internet service they want to. So they start to run these services, users start to use these services and we're constantly battling a packet that will show up at some site and will raise all sorts of alarms and, you know, threats that we need to stop this activity because it looks like an attack.
So the point is, as you innovate and you step beyond what the Internet does today because of the security climate, there's a risk that this innovation gets thwarted.
Prof. WU: Can I add to that? I'll give another example. I agree partially that there's a Balkanizing effect. But I'll give another example and it's called, something called China. That is to say that the Chinese government, to a degree which wasn't true in the early Internet, has imposed the level of watchfulness and control over the Internet which is somewhat unprecedented.
And so the kind of balkanization - this is something we write about in our book - is often at the country level; that is, countries have different ideas of what they would like the Internet to be, and so already the Chinese Internet, partially because of language and obvious difference in consumer taste, but partially also because of government control, you end up with something more of a balkanized than a global medium. So that's also going on at the same time.
FLATOW: We'll come back and talk lots more about this, because it's very vital, very interesting. And we'll take your questions about the Internet and your suggestions. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.
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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION'S SCIENCE FRIDAY.I am Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about the future of the Internet with my guests Tim Wu, professor of law at Columbia University, co-author of Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World; John Horrigan, associate director for research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington; Larry Peterson, professor and chair of the department of computer science at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. and director of the PlanetLab consortium.
Our number 1-800-989-8255.
Let me pick up on this theme of balkanization. Is there really a threat? Is it developing that one of many smaller Internets coming out and one Internet can't talk to the other?
Prof. WU: I'll jump in on that. I don't quite see it as a threat as much as a phenomenon. Particularly at the country level. It's not that countries won't be able to talk to each other, it's just that they will talk to each other less. You know, when the Internet was much smaller a decade ago, there were only so many people on it and so everybody always talked to each other.
You know, it's becoming more and more of a national medium. So the Internet in Germany and in France, for one thing, is in German or in French, or in China, or in Japan, and it just comes to take on more national characteristics.
It's not necessarily bad. You know, Japanese people love using the Internet from their strange-looking cell phones. Chinese people, for some reason, love chat rooms. Americans love blogs. They just like saying what they want to say.
And so the different countries are kind of shaping the Internet to their own culture. It used to be kind of as a medium that was floating on outer space and you went there and, you know, you became this netizen. That's more becoming part of national cultures.
And I don't necessarily think that's a crisis, I think that's kind of natural and I think that over the 10 years past here we'll see more of that.
Mr. HORRIGAN: And if I could just jump in. You could imagine balkanization and decentralization and still have that capacity for any user to post content that any other user can access and see.
FLATOW: John, what are people - I know you study what people do on the Internet. What do they do on the Internet?
Mr. HORRIGAN: Well, still communication is the killer application. People still gravitate toward email and IMing and those sorts of things. Following on closely with that are doing Internet searches. People scratch their informational itches every day in a variety of ways by logging online and doing a search. And we find increasingly, for those of you interested in the media business, that people go online increasingly for news and leave behind other types of media such as national TV newscasts and local newspaper readings
So lots more communications activities, particularly interactive, richly interactive types of applications are popular among Internet users. But as bandwidth increases, people are more comfortable in watching videos online and taking advantage of some of the entertainment applications.
FLATOW: What is your sense of - I'll ask all of you - of in Congress, where there are these bills about Internet neutrality. Do they have the - share the sense of the general public that the Internet should remain a free and open place or are they siding with big business like they do on many issues?
Prof. WU: Well, I've been watching this and there's actually different members of Congress are different on this. And so it's hard to say generally what Congress is. I think there's a lot of grassroots reaction to some of the plans the Bells have come up with.
The Bells have said numerous times that we're not happy with Google free-riding on our pipes. We want to create premium, a tiered Internet. Maybe we want to start choosing more of what the user's experience is like. Start tailoring it more, choosing one company over another.
And there's a big reaction to that among users, and mostly negative, because they like the world where, you know, a blog like Boing-Boing can be as popular as CNN, and it's four people who are just goofing around part-time. And I think Americans like that folk culture feeling from the Internet.
And they don't really like big media, media consolidation. It's one issue that has a lot of grassroots support.
FLATOW: You now, for many years...
Prof. WU: Yeah, sorry.
FLATOW: For many years we had over the air television, free TV channels, and people said, I'm not going to pay for cable, but they did. Could that be happening also with the Internet?
Prof. PETERSON: Well, people do pay more for broadband than they used to for dial-up. And people are signing for broadband in droves. I think with network neutrality debate, one of the initial promises of the Internet is that the Internet would make democracy finally possible. And I don't know that that's been the case.
But I think in the communications policy arena, a couple of times over the past few years - as Tim was referring to - the grassroots mobilization capacity of the Internet has really been a disruptive force in the communications policy media.
And Tim mentioned the media ownership rules. Now we see it happening with lots of grassroot activity on network neutrality. So I think as you watch the House and Senate work their way through this, there's still a lot of uncertainty and deliberation going on among members because of this grassroots phenomenon that we're seeing.
FLATOW: Larry, did the Internet more or less, was it designed or did it just grow on its own?
Mr. HORRIGAN: Well, a little bit of both. You have to argue an excellent design, because it was designed, obviously, over 30 years ago and there was no way to anticipate this sort of usage it was going to get today. So it's a very nice architecture and it's enabled unimaginable things to happen.
There are limits to it. The world is clearly a very different place than it was 30 years ago. I've been harping on security, and just to bring that example back to the table for a second, the original assumption of the Internet was that everyone was a good guy and if there were bad guys, they were on the outside. And all I had to do was create a safe world on the inside and we all trusted each other and everything was fine.
But of course that's not the case today. The adversaries aren't just on the outside, they're everywhere. And so we have to rethink who we trust and how we build a network up based upon those trust relationships.
Originally the Internet assumed that the things that you connected to it with, the computers, were always plugged in, they never moved, they had sufficient power and so on. And clearly none of that's true today, because we are a very mobile world and we have mobile devices and we have very small, embedded devices that are going to be connected to the Internet very soon.
And so it's these sorts of assumptions that are starting to break down and causing people to think if we stood back and had a chance to design this thing over again, how would we do it?
FLATOW: How would you do it? A good question.
Prof. WU: I think it's a really great question and I'll bring this - hopefully it's not too techie - but there is sort of a philosophical difference among engineers and network - you know, there are network ideologies, and there are people who people that they really got something in the Internet's original design.
You know, it is very equal among everything. It is - I'll use a technical term, it's a best effort network. It hasn't really been optimized for anything. It started, you know, when it began it was used for email and bulletin boards and the World Wide Web grew on top of it and then, you know, instant messaging grew on top of it, chat rooms grew on top of it, Google. All these things grew and grew and grew and even voice, even phone service has been replicated.
So that original design, as Larry said, turned out to be a lot sturdier than people thought. And the question is whether there's - really it's that possible to improve on it. There's a big divide. And some people think yes. They think we could do better. And some people said, you know, there's something about just that very simple principle of treating everything equally that can't really be improved upon.
And I tend to think the latter, although, you know, it's a debate in the engineering community.
FLATOW: I would say if everything thinks they own the Internet and then everybody thinks, you know, I can contribute to the design of it and make it better. But if you don't think you're empowered anymore, why should you try?
Prof. WU: Yeah. I guess it's a good point.
Prof. PETERSON: Just speaking for the research community, which is obviously a very narrow segment of those that are involved in the Internet. But the ones that feel a little bit responsible for this experiment that escaped from the lab, the Internet was something that we were able to tinker with and innovate with at one point and it's now such a commercial success that we aren't able to do that. And so we naturally gravitate towards the places that we can innovate, which is on top of the Internet.
And there are a lot of people that believe that the Internet is just fine and that we will just go off and build new services on top of it. But the real debate gets down to can we, in fact, solve all the problems that we foresee by only working on top of today's Internet? Or do we really have to reconsider how it's designed at the core?
FLATOW: Name me some of those problems that you foresee.
Prof. PETERSON: So the problem that does not go away because as you build new services on top of the Internet is the ability to launch and distribute an online service attack on some point in the Internet. And the reason for that is no matter how wonderful--
FLATOW: You mean to bring - in lay terms - that we bring down somebody's network.
Prof. PETERSON: Right. So you're CNN.com and you've commandeered a thousand zombies, machines that you've infiltrated around the world, and you cause them to start sending traffic to CNN.com, and you put such a load on it no one else can get to it.
Prof. PETERSON: So this happened a couple of years ago.
FLATOW: So that problem you don't see going away?
Prof. PETERSON: That problem is an impossible one to make go away by building on top of the Internet because there's already access to the underside of the Internet that you can still send those packets. And so if all you can provide enhance services on top, it's very difficult to correct something that's inside.
FLATOW: Right. What other major problems...
Mr. PETERSON: What I'm trying to get at...
FLATOW: What other major problem...
MR. PETERSON: Okay, go ahead.
FLATOW: You can jump in, go ahead. Let me just see if I can get - Larry said he had a couple of...
Mr. HORRIGAN: I want.
Prof. WU: Okay, go ahead, Larry. I'm sorry.
FLATOW: Any other, well go ahead, Tim, if you want to jump in if he hasn't got anything...
Prof. WU: Well, I just want to say, you know, there's always this debate over - and this is getting a little technical, and I - but there's this debate as to whether things can be improved on top of the Internet, as we say, or whether you have to rip up the highway and fix it that way.
And it's been to me very surprising what things the Internet has been capable of. That 30 year old very basic, very simple design has been capable of a lot of things no one ever thought it would be.
I'll give you one example. When I worked in the telecom industry, no one ever thought the Internet would be useful for phone service, you know, for dialing people up. Everything thought it's just a lousy design, it'll never be useful. But with the right amount of bandwidth, companies like Skype and other voice-over IP companies, which I think you're talking about later, have been very successful. And it's really surprised a lot of engineers, what's been capable on best effort.
You know, sometimes it's very hard to improve on simplicity. Now, I'm not a security expert, and I think maybe security is one area where it's hard, but it has been surprising, video, voice, blogging, search engines, all these things have been built on top of a very simple design, which just says keep the Internet dumb and let the intelligence run at the edges, and I think that's been very important.
FLATOW: And that's an interesting concept, but is the government, or any government, going to require that they should be able to hack into the Internet for security purposes? In other words...
Prof. PETERSON: That's a huge problem. The question of, what I assume you're getting at, the issue privacy of the users of the network versus accountability for the user's actions.
FLATOW: What's your thinking on that?
Mr. HORRIGAN: Well, let me tell you a little bit about that. There are countries right now that do that all the time. China watches, you know, the Chinese government, various police departments in China watch people's emails, watch people's, you know, communications, and they sometimes arrest people. There's been people, there's a famous case where a Chinese dissident named Churtau(ph) because Yahoo turned over all his emails.
And so, yes, this is going on all the time. The hard part is that sometimes there's new ways of evading government, but government definitely is interested in watching, and what's going on on the Internet, and has taken very active - it's not a philosophical or a possible thing, it's happening.
FLATOW: Larry. Larry Peterson, what is your view on?
Prof. PETERSON: What I see is a lot of effort into both. Put the accountability into the system on the part of users, and then finding ways to bypass that. So, one of the biggest driving forces that get people to use services on PlanetLab is that they get anonymous access to the Internet, that it's very hard to trace back to who was actually sending the packet. And I think there's going to be a constant battle between those trying to account for and those trying to bypass the accounting.
FLATOW: Talking about the future of the Internet this hour, on Talk of the Nation Science Friday, from NPR News. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two. Matt in San Antonio. Hi, Matt.
MATT (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.
MATT: My question had to do with, earlier in the show someone had mentioned how the current Internet is kind of this decentralized, folksy atmosphere, and I was just wondering what the guest's opinions were on maintaining that versus increasing security and maybe losing some of that folksy sort of traditional Internet feel versus, you know, protecting privacy information, that kind of thing.
Prof. WU: Yeah, I think it's a great question. I don't think the two are necessarily intentioned, security and folksiness. I think security can be wrongly used as a justification for centralizing the Internet. I think that companies that have an interest in centralization might, like the Bell companies, don't want to always point the finger at them, but they tend have be of this mindset, might use security as a mindset as to why we need more control, why you need more things to come from the phone company as opposed to other users. But I don't think they are necessarily intentioned.
Mr. HORRIGAN: I would second that. We can find technological solutions that keep the decentralization of the Internet, and yet provide better security than we do today.
Prof. PETERSON: And I would add to that by saying that, that folksiness when you look at user-generated content is just one of the, not only one of the cool things about the Internet, it's one thing that users value a great deal so you wouldn't want to give up that value, I don't think.
Prof. WU: Yes, completely. You know, I spend - I'm sorry, go ahead.
Prof. PETERSON: No, go ahead. You go ahead, I'm sorry.
Prof. WU: You know, I spend a lot of, I can't believe how, I am embarrassed to admit how much of my free time spend reading Wikipedia articles. You know, like what happened, you know, just on whatever. I mean, if you think of something like old comic books you used to read or something. You know, what happened in Archie or the X-Men 10 years ago? You can find it on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is free, and it's written completely by volunteers. And it's kind of amazing. You just, you know, I think that's what really at issue here is that folk culture, the return of folk culture to America has been an amazing development of the early 21st century.
FLATOW: And what about all the bandwidth and usage that has gone to pornography, gambling, things like that? Is that the future of the Internet?
Prof. PETERSON: You know, the Internet is a multifaceted tool, so people use it for different things. Good things and bad things. I don't know if you want, or even need to have security fixes for those sorts of things, but it's certainly a part of online behavior. There's no question about that.
Mr. HORRIGAN: I mean, the big legal question I guess over the next 10 years, if we want to talk a big legal question, is whether - there has been, for example, in the area of pornography, not a lot of crackdowns, considering that the Administration is obviously a moralistic administration. There has been a surprising lack of government action. There really just hasn't been much.
FLATOW: But the U.S. has also blocked the XXX site, the domain name that some people want to have.
Mr. HORRIGAN: That's true. They've blocked the establishment, but that's pretty much a symbolic gesture. You know, it's easier to find pornography that it is to find Maureen Dowd's columns, which suggests that maybe Times Select is the answer. To pornography. I don't know, you know, the pornography problems.
It is, and I'm starting to sound like the Family of Coalition or something, but the governments really haven't done much in the Western world about it, and there's kind of an acceptance. And I think that's - in the next 10 years whether, you know, maybe society just thinks porn isn't a problem anymore. It's completely different than it was 30 years ago. And I think that's something that's happened.
FLATOW: I'm going to have - I've run out of time, I'm going to thank all of you. Tim Wu, Professor of Law, Columbia, and co-author of the book Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World. John Corrigan, Associate Director of Research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. Larry Peterson, Professor and Chair for the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University and Director of the Plant Lab Consortium and experiment into new networking technologies.
Thank you all for joining us today.
When we come back, we're going to talk about one application on the Internet that's been picking up a lot of steam recently, voice-over IP, telephone over the Internet. We talked about it a little briefly. We're going to tell you how to do it if you'd like to, what your options are if you'd like to try calling. Stay with us, we'll be right back.