We live in an ever-smaller world. Modern communications and information technologies instantly allow us to know what is happening, literally, on the other side of the world. And if motivated, we can participate in a global discussion never before possible. Revolutions, natural and man-made disasters, reunions with old friends and clips of talking dogs all stream through our consciousness in an "all the news that fits in 140 characters" kind of way.
Sorting through today's informational fire hose to find what is relevant is difficult enough; trying to sort through the myriad of legal and policy issues that arise from this disruptive technical environment can be overwhelming. Yet, at any time, critical issues with the potential for major impact on how we use the Internet today are winding their way through our courts, legislatures and regulatory bodies.
Although these issues don't make news every day -- they aren't as sexy or as easy to understand as the saga of the next generation iPhone found abandoned on a bar stool -- the resolution of the five issues outlined below will shape the Internet's future. Here is a quick rundown of five things to watch that will shape the Internet's future:
Issue: Viacom v. YouTube Currently in Federal Court
Narrative: In March of 2007 Viacom hit YouTube with a $1 billion lawsu alleging that the newly acquired Google property had violated Viacom's copyrights because it housed pirated clips of TV shows uploaded by YouTube users.
What's at Stake: YouTube and a host of public interest groups argued to the court that a provision of the copyright law called Section 512 provides a solid and defensible "safe harbor" for companies that house user-generated content. This means that sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, eBay and scores of others can't be held responsible if a user of these services uploads something that infringes on someone else's copyright.
Congress specifically intended Section 512 to provide clear and unambiguous legal footing for these companies, which in turn would allow them to stimulate growth of new platforms for speech and e-commerce and develop innovative services.
Section 512 says that if a service meets certain requirements, such as taking down specific infringing content when notified about it, the service can't be held liable for monetary penalties. This part of the law has played a powerful, albeit underappreciated, role in the explosive growth of innovative services, user-generated content Web sites, social media networks and cutting-edge communications tools, from YouTube to Facebook to Twitter.
If Viacom ultimately prevails, the impact on the Internet as we know it today would be devastating. Current services would wither and die from the soul-numbing work of having to clear each piece of user-uploaded content against possible infringement before it goes public (YouTube alone receives about 200,000 new videos a day), while entrepreneurs and innovators wouldn't move their ideas beyond the "back of the envelope" stage because of the toxic online legal environment.