WE can guess that a recent piece of research coming out of Oxford University will have caused a touch of domestic discomfort in thousands of homes up and down the country.

For it revealed that up to a quarter of all married couples admit to snooping on each other's emails and text messages.

Nor does it end there. For it turns out that one in ten even spy on the Internet sites their partners have visited.

One way or another the Internet has become an important means in managing the relations people have in their everyday lives.

And thanks to the Oxford Internet Institute (Oii) we now know that if the Internet brings people together, it has the potential to have couples at each other's throats.

The Institute's research project Me, My Spouse and the Internet throws out all manner of surprises about what goes on in all those converted bedroom offices. Although not too many will be shocked by learning that 97 per cent of respondents would be 'unhappy' about their partners falling in love on line, with 94 per cent miffed to find their partners indulging in cyber sex, or disclosing intimate details.

We can certainly look forward to more of the same from the institute, which operates from offices at 1 St Giles, next door to Balliol College.

Given that billions of people now use the Internet, the institute should not want for interest in its area of study.

Showing an impressive ability to keep well ahead of the game, Oii was founded in Oxford seven years ago with the aim of becoming "the world's leading independent centre of academic excellence in research on the social implications of the Internet". And it has continued to develop at a speed that your average Broadband server would not sniff at.

The institute is presently looking at how well humour works on the Internet and travels between different countries. But there is research too into the extent to which Governments across the globe are increasingly censoring online information that they find to be strategically, politically or culturally threatening.

And now an American professor at the institute has been making headlines with an even darker warning to the world. Never mind snooping partners or interfering governments, it is the Internet itself that is in big trouble and under threat.

Jonathan Zittrain, an acclaimed cyber law scholar, came to Oxford to become the university's first professor of Internet Governance and Regulation.

The Internet is so ubiquitous that its users take it for granted. But in Prof Zittrain's view it is surprisingly delicate and, with no one even recognising it, the Internet is under threat. In fact it is already well on the road to ruin, the victim of its own colossal success, he argues.

Prof Zittrain's arrival in Oxford from Harvard, where he founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, offered the clearest proof of the university's determination to establish itself as a major international player in studying the Internet.

He arrived with a reputation for his work on censorship, taxation of Internet commerce and risks the Internet poses to our privacy.

But few could have predicted its new Internet professor could have such a fearful view of the Internet's future. And if that is not bad enough news, it seems all the gadgets that we have learnt to treasure - your iPhone, iPod, Blackberry, PlayStation - are all helping to kill it.

Prof Zittrain sends out his resounding wake up call in his new book The Future of the Internet And How To Stop It. Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia, pulls no punches with his advice. "The best way to save the Internet is to turn your laptop off until you've read this book." After reading it you may well find yourself looking at your iPhone with suspicion, not so much as toy as a pernicious enemy.

You see, for all his relaxed and cheerful manner, which led one blogger to describe him as "the most entertaining tech policy geek in the world," he is at heart a cyber freedom fighter. What this Internet professor holds most dear is the chaos and wildness of the Internet, which we are now in real danger of surrendering in our hunger for safe and more dependable gadgets.

Of course, Prof Zittrain is clever enough to know others have rushed to predict the end of the Internet is fast approaching. As long ago as 1995, Robert Metcalfe, the American networking guru, forecasted the collapse of the Internet. Since then there have been warnings that it would be brought crashing down by spam or viruses. Only a few weeks ago, the newspapers were full of reports that the net was about to be overwhelmed by streaming video, as millions flock to the BBC's iPlayer and YouTube.

"Well, I'm not one of those figures saying the end of the world is nigh," he told me. "The end is not going to come with a bang but with a whimper. I don't feel a Hollywood movie could be made from my book. It is not meant to be alarmist."

His case centres on "the generativity" that he believes gave rise to the the success of the PC and the Internet, which is essentially their capacity to welcome unfiltered contributions from anyone. This freedom to connect with other people and reap the rewards of unanticipated opportunities is what has driven everything forward and provided the greatest benefits for computer users.

But sadly the anarchy of the Internet has come at a price, leading to security threats, viruses, spyware and invasions of privacy. And with it has come the consumers' hunger for safe, reliable and no-nonsense gadgets capable - like games consoles and iPods, capable of doing one thing well.

Big corporations have been only too happy to give us this new form of 'tethered' appliances, unable to be modified by anyone except their vendors.

But Prof Zittrain believes they come with some unusual and alarming features. They can be remotely updated by companies that make them, who can add and remove features as they see fit. Some of our favourite appliances have already been used in rather sinister ways, he points out. There have been car satellite navigation systems that have been reconfigured to eavesdrop on their owners. At the same time, new Web platforms like Google mash-ups and Facebook can be monitored and controlled from a central source.

"This opportunity has come about because of consumer decision," Prof Zittrain told me. "We are asking for this kind of control, even though we are going to regret it it. It's like the wildness of the Internet became too much for us. If security problems worsen and fear spreads, rank and file users will not be far behind in preferring some form of lock-down, and regulators will speed the process along. In turn, that lock-down opens the door to new forms of regulatory surveillance and control.

"A lock-down on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized , out of left field."

Of course to those who simply want their iPod or SkyPlus box to work, the Internet professor can sound more like a killjoy rather than a freedom fighter.

His own solution is to divide our computers into secure and less secure zones, one half safe and simple and one open to experiment and the wildside of the Internet. The alternative, he says, is a world where PCs become all to similar to our television sets.

But it's difficult to imagine too many of those buying their iPhones this weekend, fretting about the prospect of the prospect of lock-downs cutting short the Net experiment and bringing governmental control that "upends a balance between citizen and sovereign".

Besides, there is still that snooping partner at home to worry about.