Top Tens of 1997
by Jon Lebkowsky
1. Supreme Court rules on Communications Decency Act. "The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship." So saying, the Supremes rejected a law intended to sanitize the global Internet, restricting content to material suitable for minors. The Supremes reaffirmed a lower court decision that acknowledged the overriding importance of the Internet as a communications environment which should be allowed to flourish relatively unrestricted by laws governing content. Look for a rerun in '98, though... rumor has it that a CDA II is in the works, and public libraries are installing controversial filterware to implement content restrictions locally, though Austin Public Library (among the first to implement) is experimenting with unfiltered workstations for adults.
2. Microsoft antitrust issues acknowledged. The Feds acknowledged the obvious -- that Microsoft had become the three-ton gorilla in the software jungle. The Feds might have slept on, if not for two-ton gorilla Netscape shaking the trees. Though Microsoft raves on, it's catching hell from activist and consumer groups such as NetAction, which publishes ongoing reports to an e-mail list called Micro$oft Monitor, http://www.netaction.org/monitor/
3. Shakeup at Wired. After two IPO attempts were aborted and significant piles of money sunk into supposedly cutting-edge online projects gone red, Louis Rosetto's role in the organization diminished around the same time as the traditional Thanksgiving layoffs, and Kevin Kelly took sabbatical to write a book about... economics!
4. Web publishing lost its gloss. In a shakeout of sorts, publishers of content on the Web realized they didn't have much of a business model. Banner ads weren't quite cutting it; few online publishers could validate numbers sufficient to justify ad revenues supportive of the sometimes extravagant cost of content generation. Not the death of the Web, though: Publishers reduced their budgets and their expectations and kept truckin'. Example: When Prodigy decided to drop Stim (http://www.stim.com/), its hip East Coast webzine, it gave the name to the staff, who cut costs but kept energy levels high.
5. "Virtual Community" fails to fly as stand-alone business. Howard Rheingold's "Electric Minds"( http://www.minds.com/), an ambitious attempt to create a self-sustaining online community, failed to attract second-round financing and was ultimately sold to Durand Communications (http://www.durand.com/). "Minds" worked as community, but was unable to find a business model that would generate sufficient revenues to float the ship (see number 4, above). However, virtual community isn't dead by a long shot. Virtual communities are emerging as adjuncts to existing businesses, and self-sustaining communities operated for little or no profit (e.g., The WELL, Café Utne) are rocking on.
6. Electronic Commerce gets real. While the business viability of stand-alone Web publishing and virtual community was dubious, online product sales proved way more profitable. As security methodologies for online transactions by credit card matured and gained acceptance, more and more consumers were comfortable buying online from companies such as Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble, REI, and Dell Computers.
7. Crypto Legislation is defeated -- for now. So what's the deal with cryptography? Sounds very technical and obscure, right? In wartime, sensitive communications are encrypted; one of the key tasks of intelligence agencies is code-breaking. What do ya do when encryption schemes hit the marketplace, with private companies competing over encryption strength? This gives security agencies the willies; however, privacy activists see strong encryption as the private citizen's right. Good points on either side and a huge controversy. Legislation introduced this year threatened to dilute encryption and give government entities private keys held in escrow, so that government agents can "break" private encoded communications. The legislation didn't pass, and the debate over encryption continues. http://www.crypto.com/
8. Global Internet activism emerges. Since the Internet originated in the U.S. and the largest concentrations of users are here, political assumptions about the Net tend to be U.S.-centric. Users, especially Net activists, from outside the U.S. have become increasingly vocal, and clueful observers understand that the Net's ignorance of national boundaries is both blessing and curse. When Singapore began selective filtering of the World Wide Web so that its citizens could see only those pages approved by the government, Net activists everywhere realized that the actions of nations could obstruct the free flow of information for which the Internet was famous. Thus, a global group of activist organizations created the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) at an annual meeting of the Internet Society in Montreal. GILC is working to deter national governments from censoring the Internet while encouraging them to protect individual privacy online. http://www.gilc.org/
9. Domain Name System (DNS) management is controversial. Despite the cyberspace metaphor, the Internet's not so much like real estate because it's relatively inexpensive to generate more virtual "space." However there is one physical aspect that has that finite-resource smell to it: the domain name system, or system by which names are generated for top-level addresses. The locations of webpages and other resources on the Net are identified by numerical values: 18.104.22.168 is a favorite hangout of mine, for instance, but it's easier for me to recognize by its domain name, http://well.com/ for The WELL. There can be only one http://well.com/, so each domain name (the total number of which is well around a million and a half and growing) is a finite resource, especially if those names are limited to the few highest level domains that exist now: .com for commercial entities, .net for networks, .org for nonprofits, .edu for educational institutions. Furthermore, there's a question as to who should manage this precious resource. The National Science Foundation originally contracted with a company called Network Solutions, but that contract expires in March '98, and it's unclear just what's next. A working group of the Internet Society has proposed a plan whereby seven new top-level domains will be created, and DNS management contracts would be awarded to several distributed registrars. This plan has been widely criticized, partly because so many folks want in on the potentially lucrative DNS business. Meanwhile, alternate systems already exist (e.g., Alternic and name.space), and the U.S. could see a privatized DNS. As 1997 ends, the issue's still blowing in the virtual wind.
10. Online "spam" reaches epidemic proportions. Unsolicited commercial junk e-mail, nicknamed "spam," proliferated in 1997 as the market for bulk e-mail products and services grew increasingly lucrative, and developers of bulk e-mail technologies grew more sophisticated at exploiting online resources. A key battle in the war against the floods of spam occurred here in Austin, where several plaintiffs brought a precedent-setting spam-related suit against C.N. Enterprises (aka Craig Nowak) of Southern California. Similar suits have since been filed elsewhere and "junk e-mail" legislation has been proposed by Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE) and others. http://www.cauce.org/