iWall may put up barriers on the Internet: experts

Some are worried and others are excited, but everyone agrees that iWall may forever change the nature of the Internet.

In its bid to get back on-line, Toronto-based webcast company iCraveTV.com has created iWall, a technology designed to control where it sends its Internet broadcasts.

But experts say iWall could be about a lot more than just one company getting back on the air.

“[There are] serious implications for free speech, for openness, for the exchange of ideas – all of the things that the Internet is supposed to meet,” said Richard Rosenberg, a professor in the department of computer science at the University of British Columbia and a vice-president for the Internet interest group Electronic Frontier Canada.

“This is a particularly weird kind of technology to be putting out on the Internet just so iCrave can avoid their U.S. legal problems. Who are they going to appeal to – Canadians? Why would they want to watch junkie television over iCrave – and it is junkie television,” Rosenberg said passionately.

“If the technology permits restrictions based on country, or other domain names or any other criteria, then it has serious implications for exchange of ideas – for all the good things that the Internet is about.”

iCraveTV, for its part, claims the technology is not a firewall and doesn’t jeopardize the international nature of the Internet. The technology is designed to help iCraveTV determine where Internet users are geographically located so they can decide whether they are legible to receive broadcasts, said iCraveTV’s chief executive William Craig. But iCraveTV is not willing to explain exactly how the technology works, since it is trying to get a patent on the product.

This silence is generating concern, said Jordan Worth, a telecommunications analyst at IDC Canada in Toronto. It’s hard to judge what the consequences of the technology might be without knowing exactly how it works, Worth said.

“The underlying philosophy of the Internet has always been open access, so when you start controlling that and shaping it in a different way, there may be unintended and adverse consequences,” he said.

“As soon as you can find out where a person is, you can then start to micro-manage the network to establish tighter controls on users, so I guess that’s kind of a dangerous route, if in fact that’s what it is.”

But some believe that the technology might have positive attributes as well.

Paul Hoffert, the director of the CulTech Research Centre at York University in Toronto and the author of the upcoming book about the Internet, All Together Now, said the business community will likely embrace the technology.

“I think [iCraveTV] is actually doing a very good service by bringing to the attention of the world the fact that even on this Internet, you can cable together technologies that will imitate the controls you have on some of the private networks and that you’ll have on the next version (of the) Internet,” Hoffert said.

“It’s great for business,” he said. Right now one of the biggest stumbling blocks for companies doing business over the Internet is respecting territoriality. A lot of distribution agreements are based on getting rights within certain territories, something currently difficult to respect on the ‘net.

A technology such as iWall, Hoffert said, was inevitable.

“You have your traditional Internet users who want to preserve the absolutely wonderful anonymity and access to everything that the Internet delivered. And you have the forces of business and the forces of a great majority of users, who, while they love that, have grown up with and are used to living in a society that has a great deal of regulation.”