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Hands-off the net

In this rather depressing piece, Adam Thierer and Wayne Crews of the Cato Institute describe a recent U.N. conference on how the Internet should be governed and what steps should be taken to solve the global “digital divide” and to “harness the potential of information” on behalf of the world’s poor. As Thierer and Crews point out, this is really about the desire of statists, under the guise of protecting the world’s citizens, “to get their hands on one of the world’s most liberating technologies. . .not because of its failures but because it undermines members’ authority.” I was somewhat surprised that Thierer and Crews do not appear to share my knee-jerk optimism that the U.N.’s efforts are destined to fail and that a laissez-faire approach will prevail.
HINDROCKET adds: I agree that the U.N. isn’t much of a threat, but I am nevertheless concerned that we may be living in what will soon be known as the “good old days” of the internet. Whether the current wild, woolly and free environment can continue indefinitely seems doubtful. The main problem, I think, is economic rather than political. To date, a great deal of money has been lost on the internet. Porn sites are said to be just about the only ones that make money. The principal business model, which is based mainly on banner ads, hasn’t shown that it can work. So far, news and entertainment organizations have been willing to provide content for free because they think they have to in order to stay competitive. Ultimately, however, the web will have to pay its way like everything else.
The most likely business model, I think, would be similar to cable television. ISPs would offer subscriptions to a variety of “channels” covering news, sports, etc. for a package rate that would be higher than today’s monthly charges. Sites would be paid by the ISP, based mainly on the amount of traffic they generate. Whether sites would be available to multiple ISPs, or ISPs would insist on exclusive relationships–so that, for example, to access the Washington Post and ESPN you have to subscribe to AOL–I can’t foresee. This kind of system would, of course, be more amenable to regulation and taxation than the current environment, and therefore would be favored by policymakers. Where such an approach would leave sites that are intentionally non-profit, like blogs, I have no idea.
Admittedly, this is an area in which I am no expert. We’d be interested to hear from readers who have other opinions on the future of the net.

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