Big Boys Take Over Internet

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Shannon Burnett's unofficial Web site for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans used to offer video clips and insights into plot and characters.

No longer. Corporate lawyers took care of that with a complaint of copyright violation. Burnett removed the material, though she believed she had legal grounds for using them.

"You look at the fact that this is 20th Century Fox," Burnett said. "I'm a 25-year-old married mother of two. I don't have what it takes to go up against something like that."

The episode last summer drove one more stake through the Internet's noncommercial heart.

Big corporations have a significant and growing presence on the Internet. In March, just 14 companies controlled 60 percent of users' online time, down from 110 companies two years earlier, Jupiter Media Metrix found.

As the Internet becomes more commercialized, companies are able to use the courts, trademarks and copyrights, proprietary technology and deep corporate pockets to control what Internet users do and say, threatening the openness that made the Net unique.

Policy decisions and technological developments in the next year and beyond could give big business even greater power in the online world.

"Clearly when the community did not toss spammers off the face of the earth, it was a lost cause at that point," said computer scientist Ed Krol, referring to senders of commercial mass-mailers.

Krol, who wrote one of the first guides to the Internet, knew it intimately in the early days when it was a place for researchers at universities and governments to talk about their professions, hobbies and other interests with little interference from lawyers or corporate executives.

After the National Science Foundation lifted commercial restrictions in 1991, companies like Amazon.com opened up storefronts on the Net. America Online flooded mailboxes with promotional disks and brought millions of newcomers online.

Today, the Internet as most people know it is a world of pop-up ads and online registration forms, a world where your credit card serves as your passport.

Not that commercialization is necessarily bad.

"What you have now is this incredibly exciting place, where people can learn, teach, shop, improve their health and stay abreast of activities," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

Even though a few companies now dominate, creating tensions with noncommercial interests, Microsoft Corp. general counsel Brad Smith said more diverse content is out there and being viewed regularly, made possible by corporate-driven technologies.

The Internet's pioneers never intended to restrict commerce. The architecture was designed to be topic-neutral, meaning data packets are handled the same way whether they are commercial or noncommercial.

That neutrality permitted noncommercial innovations like the Web, as well as commercial developments like instant messaging and e-commerce.

The problem comes wen policies, laws and technologies are overlaid on that framework and allowed to chip away at the Net's neutrality, said Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor.

"There is a role for commercialism," Lessig said. "The concern is how the commercial interests might want to change the features of the Internet to better protect themselves."

Soon after Hollywood studios discovered the Internet, their lawyers went after unofficial fan sites.

Some online materials, such as downloads of complete episodes, clearly cross the line. But disputes are often over gray areas - snippets or summaries - that courts rarely get to resolve because fans back down first.

Internet lawyer Jorge Contreras acknowledges that Web sites can be boring when stripped of images, sounds and video. But like it or not, he said, the law as written favors the studios.

The entertainment industry won a few key lawsuits this year.

Music distributors forced Napster's music-sharing service offline. Movie studios also won an injunction against a site that linked to software for undoing copy protections in DVDs.

Trademark holders won the rights to several ".com" domain names, including a site meant to criticize entertainment giant Vivendi Universal. They also got favorable registration procedures for new domain suffixes such as ".info" and ".name," though the latter was supposed to be for individuals only.

Meanwhile, the busiest sites are increasingly run by a handful of companies, giving them greater ability to control what users read, view and say. By running the message boards and chat rooms, such sites can delete unpopular viewpoints or reveal identities of anonymous critics.

As well, technologies for digital-rights management promise to restrict what users can do with information they buy. The newly launched industry-backed MusicNet service won't let customers transfer songs to portable players, and tunes expire after 30 days.

As cable modems grow in popularity, Internet content and access are increasingly controlled by the same company - the cable provider. Add to that emerging technologies for giving preferential treatment to certain types of data, such as video.

Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, fears the combination could one day let cable companies restrict access to competitors and give preference to their sites and applications they favor.

Likewise, wireless service providers can spotlight preferred partners.

Emerging services like Microsoft's .Net could give companies even greater control over names, credit card, personal schedules and other information, as they would be centralized under a proprietary system.

The closed systems are "not consistent with the spirit in which the Internet was born," said Vint Cerf, who led the team the developed the Net's nonproprietary framework, called TCP/IP. "On the other hand, I'm pragmatic. The Internet has to pay for itself. Otherwise it wouldn't work nymore."

Harvard University law professor Jonathan Zittrain says the Internet's newcomers may welcome the centralization, just as vacationers may prefer the closed environment of Disneyland over the open but unstructured Woodstock.

Plenty of noncommercial content still exists - though it can be hard to find.

While Verizon's wireless Internet service has prominent links to MSNBC, ABC News and The New York Times - it doesn't offer the alternative AlterNet. And many search engines, including powerhouse Yahoo, give better billing to sites that pay them.

"This is the last remaining communications medium that allows the small person to participate," said Barbara Simons, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery. "To lose that would be a great tragedy."



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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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