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An independent advisory group of European experts recently presented a report to the European Commission entitled: "The future of the Internet - What role for Europe?". The following are comments about that report. Many thanks to Reinhard Geiger of ACTS NewsClips for drawing may attention to the report.

Another future for the Internet in Europe

Two Internets

The report puts forward the idea that there need to be two distinct but interconnected Internets, one they call the Commodity Internet for everyday use and a High Performance Internet for research purposes. There is clearly a necessity to cater for differing needs, which the current Internet does not do. However, it is far from sure that these needs can be satisfied with such a "us and them" logic and, as a model for understanding Internet development, it is rather limited. We might commiserate with research workers who, through the unprecedented success of the Internet and the resulting traffic jams, have been considerably hampered in using a key tool. We might not commiserate with commercial broadcast concerns who insist on trying to ram Gigabyte video and audio streams down tiny Internet pipes. This somewhat ridiculous situation is partly the consequence of us having tacitly decided that the Internet is to be the starting point on which to build a unique world-wide digital network for all kinds of traffic.

Access for everybody?

In the debate about universal service, it is often erroneously thought that it is sufficient to provide wide spread access for everybody to be able to use the Internet. The report says "the takeoff point for any new Internet application depends strongly on a critical mass of users having an Internet access with sufficient bandwidth." While this is not strictly untrue, having access is no use if you lack the necessary know-how. For all their attempts to simplify interfaces, advocates of technological solutions tend to forget that technology can never replace essential basic skills such as being able to express yourself in writing or knowing how to collaborate with others on-line.

Participation rather than fence sitting

The report shows a clear understanding of processes of Internet governance as illustrated by the work of the Internet Society (ISOC), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). Its authors are apparently part of the family. The report points out the need to participate in such processes. Effectively, the European Commission moved from frank opposition to uncomfortable fence sitting as far as the Internet was concerned only to adopt a more active role quite recently thanks to the opening offered by the World Wide Web which was seen as a European invention.

The report advocates setting up a European group of experts to advise the Commission and help it take a more proactive role in Internet development. Such a solution is quite in line with current Commission practices which consist of setting up high level groups of experts to advise on key issues. It is not at all sure, however, that the Commission lacks such information, judging from some of the recent well-informed papers it has published. It is also debatable, whether such a top-heavy structure is really appropriate in an extremely complex and fast-changing situation. One of the major handicaps of the European Commission - and no doubt of governments elsewhere as well - is that it is structurally unable to speed up its decision-making processes. In a recent public debate about the Internet International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) and the domain name issue, a Commission official complained that the Commission had not been given the time to react. In addition, despite recent efforts, the European Commission's internal structure is still extremely compartmentalised and as such is severely handicapped when trying to deal with issues that cut across most of its Directorate Generals and require a high level of collaboration as is the case with future Internet development and use.

The European sad song?

The report repeatedly harps on the gap between Europe and the States as far as the Internet is concerned and incites the European Commission and European industry to do something about it. While such an impression is no doubt based on hard facts, is there not something quite unhealthy if not totally misleading in on-going comparisons of this type? Not only is it demoralising in the long run, but, above all, it inherently assumes that Europe and the States are playing the same game according to rules that the latter has set. There may be other ways of looking at the Internet and its future than in terms of outright competition and commercialisation and the unbridled belief in science and technological progress as being ultimately good for mankind. What would happen if all those that consider people really should be put first - not as inconsiderate, competing individuals, but as responsible, collaborating members of society - whether they be Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians or whoever else were to join forces...?

Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise.

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Created: April 3rd, 1997 - Last up-dated: April 3rd, 1997