Science Interviews


Mon, 1st Dec 2014

Should we regulate the web?

Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show The Internet: the good, the bad and the ugly

For better or for worse, the internet is clearly a powerful resource. So should it Internetbe regulated? At the moment there are really no international laws in place to govern how this global entity operates and how people should behave there. And, somewhat surprisingly, this is actually regarded as one of the most powerful virtues of the Internet.

But where is the web heading, and can it remain unregulated and free forever? Chris Smith spoke to Jonathan Nightingale, Vice President of the not-for-profit web-browser Firefox...

Jonathan -  My first interactions with the web and with the internet more broadly were email, text based web pages and the idea that you could gather this information that you could communicate with people, that was very promising.  But the explosion of information thatís moved online, the idea that really, everything that we know, most creative endeavour of humanity ends up there one way or another.  You wouldíve been laughed out of the room.  Thatís such an ambitious thing to have predicted.

Chris -  Itís not without problems though isnít it because we see increasingly countries which have laws that have stood for hundreds of years and worked incredibly well and now, weíve got this new phenomenon of communication and people are trying to apply these laws that they understood.  They were abiding by them, everything seemed fine.  They donít work in the online space though.

Jonathan -  What the internet has really done is two things that we haven't had to deal with before.  I think the first one is: itís introduced problems of scale.  If you had malice in your heart, you were bounded by how many people you could reach and how many of them would fall for your con or leave their doors unlocked.  These days, you can reach a much broader audience much more rapidly.  The technology facilitates that.  Thatís problematic and as you say, laws are going to have to catch up with it.  And then I would say, the second challenge, it is new, certainly, the scope of it is new with the internet is, the challenge of jurisdiction that it can be very difficult to prosecute people who violate your laws because your laws are different than my loss here in Canada.  Even if the UK and Canada can shake hands and agree on some common regimes, itís going to be very hard to do that 200 times.

Chris -  Do you think then inevitably, based on what youíve just said, that weíre looking at a future where the internet will be regulated?

Jonathan -  I would have great hope for regulatory organisations, legislative bodies, finding ways to serve that common, to steward it, to put in regulations around how it must remain open.  It must remain unmoderated and it should be possible for anybody to come in and to play and to imagine and to create.  I would hate for our fear of what a bad actor could do in that commons to cause us to close the commons altogether. What the web needs, you're absolutely right, we need to see evolution.  We need to see our notion of how we police, how we patrol, how we protect people.  That needs to evolve very rapidly, just as every part of our society is evolving as the web reaches more and more of it.  But I think the central notion of a free and open web where people can communicate and innovate without gatekeepers, thatís a powerful thing.

Chris -  But how free and open do you think it really is because we know that one company who own the search rights to a very large amount of data dominate the internet and yes, theyíve been instrumental in driving evolution, theyíve driven a huge amount of change and itís been very exciting, a very exciting journey, but they are nonetheless a very powerful player.

Jonathan -  I think there are two threats.  One threat to the data of the web is exactly what youíve named that we may have legislative action taken.  Another threat is that any time you get a resource in a commons thatís this valuable, somebody is going to get it into their head that they want to carve off a piece of it.  And you're absolutely seeing that there are a couple of organisations right now who are trying as much as they can to pull all of your online life into their garden.  Itís a beautiful garden and everything works nicely together.  As long as you stay in the garden, you donít have to think too much about it, but itís a garden with walls and by the way, the organisations that are doing it today are not the first to try it.  Ten years ago, when we released the first version of Firefox, it was into a web that was 96% internet explorer because a company had successfully built a walled garden around the web and said, ďIf you want to get on the web, you're going to do it through our product.Ē  We released Firefox because we felt that choice was critical and hundreds of millions of people voted with us.  I think no one organisation is ever going to be able to call the shots on everything that humanity might do with something as powerful as the internet.

Chris -  Do you think nonetheless, it will enable people to remain completely free and unbiased because if you are a shop and you bought lots of other shops, the monopolies commission would be after you eventually if you owned the high street?  But that doesnít seem to be stopping people on the internet, does it?  So, do you think we need something in place to at least make sure that we donít end up slaves to one particular online entity?

Jonathan -  There's an element of this that points to a debate that you certainly see in many parts of the world around net neutrality.  Itís very much an undecided question right now.  As far as weíre concerned in Mozilla, as far as I'm concerned as an individual, I want to see a neutral internet.  I donít want some people to be able to pay for fast lanes and other people to be inevitably dumped into slow lanes.  I do think that that will hinder the ability of new entrants to come up and surprise us and displace old titans.  I think thatís very important and thatís an example of a legislative fight thatís going to have to happen all over the world.  Probably, over the next 20 years, you're going to see different nations try different conclusions about what happens to the internet within their borders.  But you're absolutely right, that some kind of affirmative statement that we want the internet to be a commons, that we want it to be a neutral ground is important.

Chris -  Where do you see this going next?  I mean, weíve seen huge change.  Weíve seen this thing take over our lives and become part of almost every aspect of our lives.  Where is this going to go next?  What do you see on that horizon or even over the horizon 20 years hence?

Jonathan -  Twenty years is a long time.  I think the takeover you're describing is absolutely something that I feel.  Itís not something that the rest of the world feels yet, and so, one thing thatís going to characterise the next 20 years is bringing that connectivity to everyone.  Itís not that you just started using the computer instead of your travel agent or phoning friends or something.  As a technology fetish, you did it because it solved problems in a new way, gave you more choice.  It brought options that you werenít aware of before.  Those advantages have not been conferred on everyone yet.  So, thatís one piece that I think weíre going to see a great deal of continuing change around.  And then I want to come back to this idea that over the next 20 years, we actually have a couple of possible futures.  My fear is that whether itís by well-intension legislatures or by quarterly earnings-seeking organisations that we will see this open interplay chipped away at, that people will try to carve things out, that someone will say, ďhereís some grand, new technology, but you can only get it on our terms.Ē  Thatís not a struggle that goes away anytime soon, but if I can be a little more aspirational, the future Iíd like to see, the future that 20 years ago, I wouldíve been afraid to point to, is that it continues.


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Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? alancalverd, Tue, 2nd Dec 2014

Should the internet be completely free? 

I'm perfectly willing to reinstate the accounts of all the people trying to sell fake passports on TheNakedScientists website. 

I'm a member on another bike website.  Every once in a while someone will post a link to an Asian website selling bikes at a ridiculously low price (relatively speaking).  It is hard to tell if they are 100% fraudulent (take the money and run), or they are selling forgeries of trademarked material.  One way or the other it is a scam as they aren't selling the product that they are representing that they are selling. 

So, should the websites just be ignored (freedom of speech)?  Or should there be someone that can field complaints and quickly shut them down pending verification.

Do you error on the side of caution (shut the site down until they are confirmed to be legit), or error on the side of the vendors (leave the site up, but give them a reasonable amount of time and a simple painless procedure to verify legitimacy, during which time they could be scamming many unsuspecting targets)?  Should each nation, vendor, company do their own enforcement, or should there be a centralized entity for fielding complaints?
CliffordK, Wed, 3rd Dec 2014

Unlike other forms of advertising and scamming, you don't have to submit youself to the internet. Indeed, unlike hoardings, postal scams and television, you have to invest money and time in order to make yourself vulnerable through the Net. It is reasonable to assume that every unsolicited contact is not in your interest, and every trader is a rogue until proved otherwise. alancalverd, Fri, 5th Dec 2014

One of the debates in the USA is about "Net Neutrality". One aspect of this is whether people should be allowed to pay to have some traffic prioritised above other traffic.

Some of my internet traffic like Voice (Voice over IP) or Videoconference (Jetsons telephone) is time-sensitive, and should be sent with priority over other traffic types like web browsing or email, where it doesn't matter if a few packets are delayed or lost - they will just be retransmitted.

It sounds like the regulators are thinking that nothing should have priority - and if nothing has priority, then everything is poor (as I have found in a number of hotels that have free WiFi). If prioritisation is forbidden, that forces us to pay more to use some other medium like fixed-line phones or a mobile phone.

Rather than save people money on internet services, such rules will cost people more money on non-internet services! evan_au, Fri, 5th Dec 2014

Unix has a function called "nice".  I'm not sure how widely used it is, but in theory one can take function that is not time sensitive and reduce the CPU load on that function.  The idea is that if one is running a maintenance routine, or perhaps a non-time-sensitive report, one could nice it, and run it in the background.

Something similar could be done with internet traffic (or perhaps that is already being done) to some extent.  So, if I choose to download a fresh version of OpenOffice, I can wait a bit and allow your VOIP to be prioritized (within reason).

The problem is humans get impatient.  I want my e-mail to arrive moments after it is sent, and have been on the phone telling that photos are in the mail (expecting them to receive them immediately). 

I have a tendency to open a few pages in new tabs, then look at them later (when hopefully they've opened).  I often would prefer to see a video clip off-line than watch a choppy replay.  Unfortunately, many content providers don't like their content being stored for offline viewing.

Part of what is being done is segregating personal from business applications.  If I buy a 10 Mbit internet connection, the provider is anticipating me to hit high speed peaks, but to average much less (whereas a business with a 10 Mbit connection may average 10Mbit). 

Of course the more performance one has, the more one demands, so a person might not dream of downloading hours worth of video over a modem connection, but does without a second thought over a high speed connection. 

An alternative that has met some resistance is to allow high speed connections, then to choke the transmission rate after a certain amount of data is transferred.  So, for example, give 10Mbit speed for the first 1 GB daily, then choke it down to 100 Kbit once a person has exceeded  the allotted data limit.  Break it up however one wants, daily, hourly, monthly, etc. CliffordK, Fri, 5th Dec 2014

Something similar is already available in Internet Protocol - the DSCP field, or "Differentiated Services Code Point". This allows the end-user to mark traffic that they wish prioritised.

Some form of Ethernet is now almost ubiquitous in home and business networks, whether wired or wireless. The P-Bit field, or Priority Code Point is able to provide a similar function for Ethernet networks.

The main barrier is that even though these mechanisms have been defined for many years, the usage of these fields is not standardised across vendors (not least because the legal and economic implications are unresolved). It is too complicated for most End-Users to understand and configure on today's computers; it will need support from equipment manufacturers, software designers and network operators to configure it properly, in a user-friendly way. evan_au, Fri, 5th Dec 2014

There's a difference here between regulation of content and quality of packaging. Not that it makes any difference to me: living a few miles from the home of high-level languages, ARM, fiber optics, and all the rest, I'm lucky to get 10 kb/s on a long download "because there's no demand, sir". But I can access every kind of filth imaginable if I'm patient.

Given that probably 30% of internet traffic is pornography, those of you lucky enough to have decent VOIP and even useable HD webcam bandwidth, must surely thank the "adult"  industry for demanding better image quality. So content regulation would stifle packaging development. alancalverd, Sat, 6th Dec 2014

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