When the Net goes commercial...
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #13

Cyberspace has always been a hang-out zone for the academic community. Most of the Internet is still subsidized, and even the increasing numbers joining the Net from outside universities and research institutes are basically academic in their pursuits of electronic knowledge. While many corporations are on the Net, they use it for communications, not as a consumer base. There is a very strong antipathy towards business, and anyone distributing an advertisement is still likely to be deluged in angry "this in not what the Net is for" letters, called flames. A few years ago there were a number of strictly-for-business areas started on the Net, coincidentally with broad reductions in subsidies worldwide. These did gain popularity to some extent, but cyberspace is not very user-friendly, nor does it facilitate secure transactions of goods or money, so these groups stagnated. What was needed was an easy-to-use, transparent and highly secure interface to the network.

CommerceNet was started last month, to provide just this interface to a number of high-technology businesses in Silicon Valley. Many such companies, and indeed others including Ford and General Motors do use electronic communications to hire, purchase, sell and book equipment. Unfortunately, they tend to create whole separate networks for their purposes, which are often not compatible and rarely interact. This makes it very difficult for a supplier to one large group to connect to another group without being a part of two different networks. CommerceNet uses the same technology and follows the same standards as the Internet, and is indeed just a part of it. Rather than provide a fixed channel of communication between a small number of cooperating businesses, CommerceNet creates an open marketplace for all to use and participate in, an environment very similar to the rest of the cyberspace.

The best thing of all, and in the true spirit of the traditional Internet, CommerceNet is free -- members have only to pay for their equipment, and may contribute to a corpus. CommerceNet manages this because it is providing very little that is not already available freely on the Internet, as a result of technologies developed under various subsidies. The three things CommerceNet provides are a comforting graphical interface, secure encryption, and mathematically generated digital signatures that can't be copied or forged.

The front-end to CommerceNet is Mosaic, developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. This free program, widely used as the preferred way of accessing the free-form hypermedia World Wide Web, uses the familiar 'point-and-click' idiom in a graphical environment. Added to this is public key encryption from RSA Data Security Inc., the patent holders of the technology behind the controversial Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) program; RSA is not charging royalties for the free version of Secure-Mosaic. RSA is also providing crucial digital signature technology, which is being used increasingly to authenticate messages from nebulous electronic identities. Both together, bundled with Mosaic for the first time, enable the placing of orders, electronic payment of money, and secure transactions without posing hurdles for those who, basically, are just not computer nerds.

Initially confined to the experimental Silicon Valley CommerceNet, these technologies will soon spread. At least in America; due to peculiar US laws equating encryption with submarines and ammunition, only severely stunted versions of will be exported. Officially, that is. As happened with other US cryptography, full-blown versions are likely to 'appear' in Europe and elsewhere. No matter when this happens, turning the community halls the Net into vast trading rings, the fact is that the information society cannot come into place without a working information economy. Finally, it looks as if a practical one is in sight.

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