I recently saw a presentation by Dr. Michael R. Nelson, who is currently a vising professor of Internet Studies at Georgetown University. He’s a real internet guru. He’s not only been a director of internet technology for nearly a decade at IBM, but also was an IT policy gury at the White House during the Clinton Administration, and if my guess is correct, he may be asked back to a similar position for the Obama Administration, since he was part of the campaign’s technology policy team. Thus, he brings with him a lot of perspective, he’s been a part of the policy process, and he may be again.
Now Dr. Nelson started set the stage for his talk letting us know first of all that he understood what the metaverse, what he called the “3D Internet” is, that he is knowledgeable about second life, and so forth. Then he set the stage for the need for policy by telling us how much the internet is not only changing in the way we use it, but the scale that we are using it. He basically said that if you thought the explosive growth that happened at the advent of the web, starting with the Mosaic browser and server around 1994, was big, the next 2-3 years will start the next generation, and that the net is only 15% of what it will soon be, in terms of numbers of users, total bandwidth, amout of content, number of devices, and applications.
“OK,” you’re saying, “so the internet is expanding and changing, who wants a bunch of academics and government policy wonks screwing around with policy?” Let’s take a quick look at how the internet got to this point. I am going to do some gross oversimplification since I owe this as a podcast to Koffee tonight and I am way over deadline.
The internet is most often attributed to growing from the foundation created by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There were a lot of networks being worked on at the time, but a lot of these were proprietary efforts that could link up a few computers here and there, but what the DoD envistioned was something robust, scalable, but also could bridge between the babylon of other networking protocals. Thus they wanted a way to internetwork across these protocals with a universal protocal.
Now, when you think about descriptions such as universal protocals, internetworking, open standards you probably are not relating this with the concept of private companies. A lot of this was driven by government funding for research and development carried out in government, university, and commercial scientists.
There are some kinds of things that are best left to the marketplace, and other kinds of things that need careful governance. To enable the best possible future for the metaverse, it may be time for more of the kind of directed research and devlopment that leads to robust potocals, standards and policies from which we got the backbone of our current interet.
To describe this, Dr. Nelson talked about three scenarios of cloud computing:
The first one we get a bunch of different kinds of proprietary clouds, with non-interoperable standards, like the cable television network model – we will have bottlenecks and monopolies.
The next scenario has distinct clouds that are interconnected, but there aren’t really standards to allow the applications to be interoperable, so we still get issues by not having single sign-on or other common middleware possible, so overall our progress, efficiency, and future are held back.
The blue skies scenario is where things like clouds and metaverses are like the internet was at its beginning, a protocal that allowed a network of networks. So the services in the clouds and metaverses have interoperable services, we can make use of common middleware, applications and data can move seamlessly, and thanks to this openess, the new net provides almost infinite opportunities.
There are a number of areas of concern, and once again I am shamelessly quoting directly from Dr. Nelson’s slides:
- Open Standards – Will virtual worlds connect, allowing content and avatars to move from one would to another? How much interoperability is desireable? What is governments’ role to play in fostering open standards?
- Intellectual Property – What is fair use in a virtual world? Which nation’s IPR laws apply?
- Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance – Under what conditions can a law enforcement agency gain access to a Second Life user’s data? How should and when could a user’s activities be monitored? Which national laws apply?
- Consumer Protection – Are the terms of a the user’s contract enough or is government regulation needed? How could national consumer projection laws apply to virtual worlds? What regulations may be needed for ‘out of world’ transactions (like on Ebay or other places)?
- Contract issues and rules of incorporation – How to incorportate a complany whose employees and board have only met in-world and online and not in real life? How to deal with a virtual, ever changing work force? How are these potentially global virtual companies and communities to have enforcement?
- Taxation and Tariffs – Which tax regime should apply? When should the tax be collected? Who’s going to do the paperwork? Where is a virtual product created?
- Security, Identity, and Trust – How much anonymity is OK? Is identity and reputation transferable between worlds? Who sets standards for accuracy and validity? Will federated identiy systems evolve? What are Governments’ roles?
I think he raises some imporant points, and it is going to be interesting to see how this evolves. I am glad to see this is happening at a time when new US White House Administration has an appreciation and understanding of the internet, but also attempting to be open to supporting science and transparency. Of course, this is really a global issue. I agree with Dr. Nelson that virtual worlds are likely to be the vanguard of the kinds of effort needed to address these new internet policy issues.