As Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow put it in his Cyberspace Independence Declaration, "We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth."
But a mere five years later, Barlow's assertions seem quaint and almost naive.
Although the Web is still a vast forum of free information, the digital nirvana once envisioned is fading as more companies attempt to require payment for content and services. The trend has become an urgent need since the bottom fell out of the dot-com market last year, forcing many businesses to begin charging for articles, storage space and Web phone calls.
Many of the Web's founders and early followers fear that the medium will be viewed as a giant shopping mall instead of the commercial-free, harassment-free, regulation-free world originally envisioned.
"Big business is hijacking the Internet," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We're creating new tollbooths on our systems."
Of course, in the physical world people have paid for goods and services that have been mostly free on the Web, such as newspapers, telephone calls and even the occasional letter to a friend. But those who couldn't or didn't want to pay for information could always turn to the public library to find local and national papers or their favorite CDs.
Today, however, as some content becomes exclusively digital--and as companies try to prevent people from sharing it--some people worry that the situation could create a two-way digital divide: Those who don't pay will have less access to information, and nonprofits and other groups with scarce resources won't be able to create or transmit content to people who may need it the most.
"It's a victory of old-media values over new media," Chester said. "There's privatization going on, a deliberate attempt by major media conglomerates to eliminate the openness of the Internet. The Internet is being redesigned."
To illustrate such concerns, many point to the merger of America Online and Time Warner approved this year. Although federal regulators placed several restrictions on the deal, opponents contend that information will be dictated by business relationships--a prospect that's anathema to people who have used the Internet for years. Those who want their content carried on the digital networks of major cable companies may have to pony up at virtual toll stations to avoid falling into obscurity.
Losing traction online
Jamie Love, director of Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology (CPT), worries that nonprofit groups like his will be relegated to second-class citizenship online. In the future, cash-strapped organizations could find their Web sites becoming sluggish and difficult to use, problems that might drive people to corporate sites that are produced more expensively.
Audrie Krause, executive director of NetAction.org, also acknowledged that nonprofits will need to work to compete with commercial sites and to avoid getting lost in the vast canyons of cyberspace, especially as some search sites such as GoTo.com adopt business plans that give priority search returns and other prominent placement to those who pay for such privileges.
"The biggest challenge will be to make people aware," she said. To that end, Krause said groups like hers will need to create their own gateways into the nonprofit world, including specific portals, search services, Web-hosting plans and even Internet service providers.
Still, Krause sees the commercialization of the Web as a positive influence. E-commerce and high-quality content published by major corporations have drawn more people to the Web, she says, and many of them may lean toward nonprofit sites like hers if companies begin charging.
"If it's going to cost you to get information on a health care issue from a dot-com site, you might be more inclined to go to a dot-org that provides information without charging," Krause said. Echoing a common concern, she added that a nonprofit site is more likely to provide impartial information than, say, a site sponsored by a pharmaceutical company to promote its latest drug.
In addition, the move to more commercialization could mean a more creative Web. Today, sites that don't charge sometimes have to scrimp on features, said Evan Williams, CEO of Pyra, a Web publishing toolmaker.
"When you offer everything for free, you're already compromising the user experience," he said. "It puts limits on innovation because you can't afford to do a lot of things."
Watching giveaways disappear
The popularity of subscriptions and other paid plans prompted Williams to create TheEndOfFree.com, a site that tracked companies that had begun charging for once-gratis services. The site recently was shut down.
Although it might sound like a product of anti-corporate rebellion, TheEndOfFree.com was actually a research tool for Williams. His company, Pyra, is a creator of Blogger, a software application designed to help people create Web logs that is often cited as one of the best examples of the Internet's ability to promote democratic communities. People can submit examples of or stories about companies that have begun collecting payments to the site.
Williams said he was tracking sites that charge because he is considering charging for his own services. Although the basic Blogger package will remain free, he said he hopes to start applying fees for more advanced features, much as RealNetworks gives away a free media player but collects payments for higher-quality versions.
Though such "premium" services have become popular with cash-strapped dot-coms, the trend could hinder diversity online. Some believe that the Web will become more like a broadcast TV medium, with its limited number of free channels, rather than a place where people with even the most obscure interests can put up a Web site at little cost and watch their community grow.
"The cool thing about the Internet is it's so much more diverse than what you'd get on public television or public radio," Love said.
Williams countered that the move to charge doesn't necessarily mean the end of the wildly creative content that has traditionally been a staple of the Web. He said he is optimistic that many people will see through corporate-driven content and find comfortable nooks and crannies where creativity will thrive.
Word of mouth, after all, has long been the lingua franca of the online world. That's what has given rise to grassroots movements formed to circumvent established systems, such as the "open-source" Linux software loyalists and so-called peer-to-peer groups like the Napster music-swapping network.
"If the Web is driven by greed, as it has been for the past few years, the more artistic stuff may stand out," Williams said.