Web 2.0: New opportunities, new risks


New user-friendly technologies have made the Internet more interactive, turning millions of users into content creators and increasing the services available online. The changes introduced have created a kind of second-generation Internet – the so-called Web 2.0.

When the Internet spread to millions of users in the 1990s it was seen as an alternative media, though still primarily based on traditional media concepts.

Like television and newspapers, it allowed users to access content in a uni-directional manner, though with the added value of offering access to a virtually infinite amount of information. Emails - based on a different platform but made available to many only via the Web - were the most-used interactive features during the early years of the Internet. Fora and chats developed as well, but only among restricted groups.

Web 2.0 has brought a new generation of activities and services, which are essentially bi- or multi-directional. Interaction has become the key word, while the distinction between creators and users of content is becoming increasingly blurred.

Blogs and wikis

The most well-known, defining features of the second-generation Web are blogs, social networking websites and wikis. File-sharing and open-source software grew from a similar concept but enjoyed widespread diffusion before the advent of Web 2.0.

All of the above allow users to turn into active creators of content. With blogs, anyone can create their own online diary to discuss private and public issues (see our Links Dossier and Blogactiv). Social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook have become the primary Internet meeting points, allowing users to chat, exchange videos and photos, create communities and build relationships.

Wikis were made famous by Wikipedia, the most-used online encyclopedia, always evolving thanks to contributions from millions of users. The term 'wiki' is used for websites that allow users to participate in the creation of content.

New services

In addition, thanks to the spread of new user-friendly technologies, the Internet has become a platform for a new generation of e-services, triggering further technological convergence. Online phone calls, boosted by Skype, are now offered by several different operators. Streaming means people can watch television on the Web, but also attend online videoconferences or communicate privately via webcams.

What's more, the targeted advertising market is growing, with new, more sophisticated technologies and bigger databases available, while syndication (RSS) has become a key activity for marketing companies, media and blogs. 

eCommerce is still lagging behind but it grows regularly. Financial services are increasingly within reach of everyone, thanks to online bank accounts and stock-trading. eHealth, eGovernment and eLearning bring the Internet into the public sphere and allow authorities to improve their services to citizens.

Security and privacy

The migration of services and activities from the real to the virtual world thanks to new technologies brings a range of advantages but it does not come without drawbacks.

The increased speed and volume of data traffic via the Web pose questions regarding the reliability of the network. The Internet infrastructure needs comprehensively enhancing to keep up with the growing demand.

However, the most concerning aspects of Web 2.0 are related to security and privacy. The easy-to-use tools typical of the new, second-generation Web have made the Internet a platform for a growing number of financial transactions, ranging from purchases of goods to money transfers between electronic bank accounts. 

Some states already pay the salaries of public employees via the Web and assets of every kind are accessible via the Internet with a simple password, raising concerns over whether the network is sufficiently protected against cybercrime.

The success of social networking websites is the most evident example of the dissemination of private data over the Internet. Facebook users tend to reveal details of their personal lives with alarming ease. Cases of misuse of this information are already widespread.

However, although users voluntarily share their data on such websites, the majority are still unaware of the amount of personal information collected while surfing on the Web. 

Search engines get and store data after every query posed. The content of personal email is stored in remote servers and in some cases scanned for commercial and security reasons. Targeted adverts and better search tools are direct consequences of higher and more detailed data collection. It remains to be seen how harmful abuse of this personal data will prove to be.

  • Web 2.0 and the Internet of the future

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding gave her most concise definition of Web 2.0 during a conference in Hong Kong in 2006: "We are now living through a new disruptive phase of the Information Society. Some people call it Web 2.0 or social networking. I can list some of the components: blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networking websites, search engines, auction websites, games, VoIP and peer-to-peer services. What is new about these uses of the Internet is that they exploit [its] connectivity to support people networking and creating content."

Her colleague in charge of science and research Janez Potocnik commented: "Europe must stay at the forefront of this key technology. The Internet is an asset we should invest in." "If Europe succeeds in designing the future Internet, it will stand stronger in designing the future of the world," he added.

Slovenian Growth Minister Ziga Turk, whose country is the current holder of the EU Presidency in the first half of 2008, underlines the advantages of Web 2.0: "The Internet today is based on a much broader participation. The most important thing is that it is allowing more talents to take part in creativity and innovation."

According to Tim O'Reilly, the Internet guru who first defined Web 2.0, the essential features of the second generation of the Net are the following: "Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability; control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them; trusting users as co-developers; harnessing collective intelligence; leveraging the long tail through customer self-service; software above the level of a single device, and; lightweight user interfaces, development models and business models."

Geert Lovink, a Dutch Professor and scholar of the new Internet trends, invokes cultural change to really understand the Web and its potential: "We have to overcome the so-called e-syndrome that makes us apply different discipline to the Internet. We have to shift from a culture based on heritage to a future-driven culture." 

Diogo Vasconcelos of Cisco, a technology firm, emphasises the emergence of blogs as an alternative to traditional media and as a new political power, citing the example of South Korea: "The Korean website 'ohmynews' sets a good model for what will happen. It has 60,000 citizens as reporters and only 60 professional journalists. The Korean prime minister could not be elected without the support of this site."

Looking at future trends, the telecoms sector dreams of a mobile Internet where everybody is connected everywhere. Jan Uddenfeldt, a senior advisor to Ericsson's CEO, underlined: "If we look at the future, we see a tremendous growth of the Internet and we also see that the majority of the users will be mobile within a few years."

  • Challenges and regulation

When in charge of justice and home affairs, EU Commissioner Franco Frattini focused on the issue of low public awareness of the risks and the rights of personal data management: "Data protection laws are designed to ensure that personal data is treated with the respect and care it deserves. But legal rights and protections are only useful if people know that they exist, and [know] how they can invoke their rights," he said in a recent speech.

"We are determined to make sure that the existing legal framework is properly applied, and that everyone, and in particular those that are handling data, is aware of their rights and obligations," Frattini added.

His colleague responsible for the information society Viviane Reding stressed the necessity of improving the security of the network: "ICT has become the nervous system of our society. A problem in the TLC sector harms other sectors such as energy supplies or financial services. The interdependency goes well beyond national borders, therefore we need to be strong in order to defend ourselves collectively," she said, announcing a new EU initiative in 2009 to increase common cyber defence.

Andy Wyckoff, the head of the OECD's Committee for Information, Computer and Communications Policy (ICCP) focuses on the infrastructural hurdles: "A huge technical challenge is bringing fibre to the last mile, especially in rural areas," he said, outlining the need for quicker Internet connections and broadband penetration, which currently averages 20% across the EU.

Dag Johansen, chief scientist at Fast, the search engine development company just acquired by Microsoft, warned: "We leave a lot of traces there. Privacy is by far the biggest concern. Now users keep not caring. But one day we have to care."

"The majority of people think that what it is done on the Internet is much more private than it actually is," according to representatives of BEUC, the European consumers' organisation.

"The requirements on transparency of the collection/processing of personal data exist. There is no new territory here, only faster technology," reads a position paper issued by FEDMA, the Federation of European Direct and Interactive Marketing. At the same time, the paper acknowledges that "there is always more that can be done to ensure that consumers know where to find information about their rights and how their data may be used".

  • Before 1992: Internet develops as an academic network
  • Up to 2001: Internet spread to a million users across the world and attracted conspicous investment, creating the so-called dotcom mania.
  • 2001-2005: The bubble generated by overly high expectations on the returns it is possible to make with the Internet bursts, leading to the dotcom crash.
  • Oct. 2004: First O'Reilly Conference, regarded as the first public event to define Web 2.0.
  • 6-7 Oct. 2008: The EU French Presidency will hold a conference on the future of Internet in Nice, focusing on RFID (The 'Internet of Things').
  • 5-7 Nov. 2008: The next Web 2.0 summit, the evolution of the first O'Reilly Conference, will take place in San Francisco, California.
  • 3-6 Dec. 2008: The next Internet Governance Forum, the most relevant event for Web decision-making, will take place in Hyderabad, India.
  • 10-12 Dec. 2008: EU-sponsored Future Internet Conference takes place in Madrid.

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