Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The power of PI: The rise of community owned Internets

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 27, 2007

From the news story: "San Francisco activist groups rally against Google/Earthlink "monopoly" deal for free WiFi "

Several San Francisco activist groups and non-profit internet companies have joined together to protest a proposed deal between the city and a Google/Earthlink partnership to provide free WiFi.

Called the Public Net San Francisco coalition, the group issued a statement Friday insisting that the city government kill a multi-million dollar pending deal with Google and Earthlink. Instead, the coalition says the city's existing high speed fiber optic network has plenty of spare capacity to support a high-speed Internet network open to every resident regardless of income.

 

The Google/Earthlink deal with San Francisco could potentially establish a model for municipalities across the US and in other countries. It would be the start of a massive new market for giant Internet companies such as Google and Earthlink.

The San Francisco deal could put them in the forefront of a race with competitors to dominate the next big business opportunity: the gold rush to monetise local markets. 

It has long been my opinion that communities will increasingly seek to own their "Internet airspace." Why should the local hardware store pay Google or Yahoo to reach its customers just a mile or two away? Why let Internet giants thousands of miles away become the gatekeepers for local commercial transactions? It sucks money out of a community.

But there is no need for a middleman, there is no need for a GOOG or YHOO tax on people engaged in their daily interactions with their neighbors. As offline and online world's become better integrated through a plethora of Web 2.0 social network applications, it will enable a People's Internet (PI).

Communities will succeed in owning their regional Internets because they can-- the technologies are inexpensive and incredibly powerful. And there is a lot of value in their community.

The most valuable emerging Internet companies are no longer technology companies but communities.

YouTube, the video sharing site was bought for $1.67bn. It certainly wasn't bought for its technology, there are many dozens of Internet sites using the same technologies. YouTube was bought because of its amazingly large and active community.

What kind of value is there in San Francisco's community of about 800 thousand residents? It's not only well-heeled but also influential, which means viral opportunities for the savvy. Whoever owns the regional online space for the San Francisco/Silicon Valley community has a goldmine--they can observe the online habits of those people, they can sell highly targeted ads, and also sell, and exploit emerging behavioral trends that could spread nationally and beyond... And of course, opportunities to influence the community.

The world's largest online advertising companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, plus dozens of startup companies, are all geared up for this opportunity. For years they have been developing ever more sophisticated technologies that can target and track a specific Internet user--and deliver custom crafted commercial messages.

Such technologies can easily be used to deliver custom crafted political messages too. And the means to do that involves collecting highly identifiable data on users.

Although most online companies say that they don't collect personal data and that they are only interested in aggregate online behaviors, with no user name attached, the data itself is filled with personal details.

In August of 2006 AOL leaked a database of search queries by thousands of its users over a several month period. Each user account was tagged with meaningless numbers instead of names. But by reading the thread of messages associated with each numbered account, in many cases it was possible to identify the household, and identify the users. Please see: The unguarded thoughts of the digital haves...

Commercial companies will still have a place within a People's Internet, providing services such as managing infrastructure operations, and keeping out the malware. But it is the ownership and governance of a PI that is important, it determines who gets what slice. Who gets the largest piece of the pie becomes important to every community and it ensures fair and ethical use of a vital communal resource.

The ownership of an online commons by their communities will be seen as essential in guaranteeing free speech, the freedom to associate, and to have unrestricted and uncensored use of the Internet. That's because online worlds will have to  carry the same basic freedoms as in the offline world, it is where we will spend a lot more of our time and it should be seamless--and protected.

Governments around the world are increasingly spying on Internet users, restricting and censoring content, and mining Internet data to arrest dissidents.

Community owned Internets could potentially stymie such activities, especially if their charter were such that could not carry any monitoring technologies--no commercial or government spyware. It could be all be filtered out in the regional PI gateways.

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Please also see SVW:

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