The Private Internet

Enrique Dans. Director of the Information Technologies and Systems Area of Instituto de Empresa

18 October 2004

IE Focus’ hi-tech guru considers what lies ahead for the Internet.

A few days ago, I e-mailed a friend to see if we could have lunch together and talk about how life was treating us. So far, so good. Having friends is quite normal, and having lunch with them is not unusual. It’s even common to send them the odd e-mail. What isn’t normal however, is to automatically receive a reply from your friend, in perfect English (my friend is from Galicia), telling you he would like to receive your mail, but to do so you have to first click on the attached link, go to a web page and type in your name and e-mail address. In the same message, my friend explained that he had installed this filter to protect himself from the relentless, impertinent barrage of SPAM and most viruses. Now only people authorized through a list managed by the user can send him messages. If I, as a friend, registered on his list, I would be able to reach him, since one would imagine (and I would hope, unless he has become a total grouch) that he would approve my request to form part of his select club of friends. On the other hand, if I’m a spammer looking to prey on addresses to which I can send messages indiscriminately, I'm sure I wouldn't waste my time registering: my friend, as is to be expected, would nix the request.

The fact that this type of tool is currently available, taken together with another series of interesting matters on the current technological panorama, leads us to an interesting exercise in futurology: Might the Internet as we know it, a free environment with hardly any regulation, have entered a crisis that could bring about its disappearance? Are we on the threshold of a new Internet, an Internext, with a philosophy that has undergone radical change?

Consider, for example, a recent, and very powerful phenomenon: the so-called social networks, which have already come under examination in these columns (see also “Say goodbye to golf clubs” elsewhere in this issue – Ed). They are based on the Six Degrees of Proximity theory, which states that one person can reach another anywhere in the world in fewer than half a dozen steps. These networks let you register your details (protected by all kinds of agreements of confidentiality and respect), and invite friends and contacts, so you can capitalize on the value of the network generated, and find commercial contacts, job offers, friends sharing like interests, or simply a partner in romance - it doesn’t matter. The variety of subjects that can be organized on a social network is as endless as the imagination of its developers. The existing social networks are beginning to reveal their personalities. They focus on and specialize in one aspect or another. The phenomenon, which is subject to the usual dynamics of growth on a network such as the Internet, is now reaching considerable dimensions.

But let's combine both features. What would happen if I used my social network, or several of them, to suit my interests, or regulate my contact preferences? The people on my list of acquaintances at a distance of less than X degrees, depending on how ill-tempered or friendly I want to be, can see my address and write to me. Those who aren’t can ask to enter through someone who is already in my club. This situation would be similar to real life, where years of using the telephone have made it possible for me to contact someone – again usually if I receive some kind of authorization or indication to do it. I can call the General Director of a company if I know him or her, or if we have a friend in common. But I will get through the filter of his or her secretary only if the General Director gives an authorization. And calling him or her at home? That requires another level of acquaintance, other filters and getting through them, which - although technically easy enough - would be socially unacceptable. Will this mean the coming-of-age of the Net? Or will it mean its exhaustion through misuse? Will we be left with the next-generation Internet, the Internext? Open your inbox, go through it from top to bottom, eliminate the 200 or so messages with viruses, offering miracle-pills or Nigerian con tricks - to name but a few of email’s delicacies - and think of the future.

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