As Congress prepares to weigh elements of President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan next week, it seems apparent to us that his proposal to significantly upgrade the nation's Internet infrastructure is one element that deserves generous funding. Upgrading the Internet would be a good economic strategy because it would spread knowledge, promote entrepreneurship and make America more competitive in the global economy.
Researchers in the United States invented the Internet and have done the most to shape its architecture and principles of open access that have empowered so many Internet users. But in recent years, American has fallen behind in providing easy, inexpensive online access. Our nation ranks 15th in the world for high-speed Internet connections needed to make the best use of many Internet features.
Not surprisingly, a significant number of poor and rural Americans have been left behind. Mr. Obama is proposing to give all children an opportunity to get online to better educate themselves and prepare to compete for challenging, high-paying jobs by providing high-speed connections to every library and school.
Beyond education, other potential benefits of high-speed Internet are apparent. Wider access would lead to more efficient and effective health care, spur entrepreneurial efforts, particularly in rural areas, and promote the arts, science and social interaction. Mr. Obama himself has shown how the Internet can be an effective tool in promoting a political agenda and spurring wider participation in the democratic process.
The president-elect also has energetically advocated "network neutrality," the idea that Internet service providers should not be able to discriminate against any of the information carried on the Net. We believe Net neutrality laws are needed to require that big Internet service providers do not block content they disagree with or provide more favorable access to corporate allies than to their smaller competitors.
Mr. Obama will need to work with Congress to guard against other potential abuses as the rapid growth and evolution of the Internet continue. While the Internet will give people the power to be stronger actors in the political and economic world, it won't necessarily be a kinder, gentler world. There is growing concern about security and privacy issues that will require thoughtful public consideration as decisions are made about Internet architecture and policies.
The Internet is expected to continue to evolve rapidly in coming years. Here are some expected trends:
* The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world in 2020.
* The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance or forgiveness.
* Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing "arms race" with the "crackers" who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.
* The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be both positive and negative in their impact on basic social relations.
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project