The internet is decentralised, open and free for all to use. These features have made the internet what it is today; a global communication platform, marketplace and content library that has created immeasurable wealth for the entire world. Yet these very features are under attack from outside and inside, possibly leading to the end of the internet as we know it.
The internet was deliberately designed to be a decentralised network. The predecessor of the modern internet, ARPANET, was developed during the Cold War by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later renamed DARPA) as a robust and decentralised alternative to existing communication platforms like the telephone system; one that would be less vulnerable to nuclear war. Unlike the telephone system, the internet cannot be shut down by destroying a few communication centrals. Any two surviving internet nodes can in theory communicate with each other if there is an unbroken line of cable or wireless hotspots between them. This decentralised nature is the very soul of the internet.
There is no centre or periphery to the internet, which has become a global network where anyone can connect with anyone else without restriction, and where everybody is free to upload or download content and to build a business out of doing so. It is difficult to assess how much the internet has contributed to global wealth, but a 2011 McKinsey study estimated that the internet at the time was responsible for 3.4 percent of the GDP in the major economies. This only includes the measurable, monetary wealth generated by the internet; if we add the experienced value of having free or inexpensive access to data, information, communication, software, cultural content, entertainment, education, networking, and more, the actual generated wealth is staggering. We owe all this wealth, measurable and experienced, to the free and open structure of the internet. Yet this free and open structure is increasingly under attack from outside and inside.
Who controls the internet?
The internet was designed to be without any localised controlling authority, barring the assignment of IP addresses (handled by the apolitical non-profit organisation ICANN). Yet today, the internet is subjected to an increasing amount of control, not only in limited democracies like China and North Korea, but also in the liberal Western democracies. This control may be instituted with the purpose of protecting copyright, fighting child pornography and drug crime, or discovering terrorist plots, and it can take the shape of blocking access to certain websites or surveillance of internet traffic (Google, for example, compares images sent by Gmail with a database of known child porn pictures).
Few people are likely to protest any control that can prevent serious crimes, but there are examples of the control going far beyond that purpose. In Great Britain, the government has introduced an obligatory porn filter that internet users actively must opt out of – and become registered for doing so. Studies of what pages are actually blocked show that not just porn sites are blocked, but also non-pornographic websites about homosexuality, file-sharing sites, sites where suicidal people can get help, sites where you can report domestic violence or child abuse, and sites that are judged to have ‘extremist’ political or religious content.
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the US intelligence agency NSA illegally recorded the telephone and internet use of millions of US and foreign citizens; something that Google’s Eric Schmidt, among others, thinks may break the global internet we are familiar with today, since nations that won’t put up with this surveillance will create their own alternatives to the internet or at least require companies to store domestically created data on domestically located servers (so-called data localisation). If this happens, the global internet we know today will be replaced by a number of national or regional nets with little or no interconnectedness. This will mean an end to the global marketplace and social platform that the internet has become.
During the Hong Kong protests in 2014 when the authorities shut down the mobile phone network, protestors created their own off-the-grid network of smartphones using an app called FireChat, which creates a local network of devices using their Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, without the need of internet providers or phone masts. This is called a mesh network.
Mesh networks, being wholly decentralised and hence very difficult to control, are true to the idea of the internet, but the requirement of having unbroken links of short-range connections effectively limits their range to densely populated areas, making them no true replacement for the global internet we know. Paradoxically, those who celebrate the openness of the internet may thus contribute to breaking it up by using open, but local alternatives.
When is the internet not the internet?
The possible breakup of the internet as a reaction to control and surveillance, as outlined above, is certainly a cause for concern, but it is probably not very likely to happen. A more likely scenario may be a sort of compartmentalisation of the internet, where the dominant online companies and services create regional platforms and make it difficult for local users to use platforms in other regions – like how Netflix makes it difficult for Europeans to use the American Netflix platform. Such compartmentalisation can be used to force different price structures for different markets, similar to regional codes for DVDs, or to comply with local regulations. While on that subject, regulation may make it difficult for new players on the market to combat the big companies’ compartmentalisation of the internet. For instance, all online stores in the EU are now required to collect VAT for the country where a customer resides; something that requires too much bureaucracy for small stores to handle, with the consequence that many small online stores now have stopped selling their products to foreigners. The loss of net neutrality will have similar consequences, with major online companies being able to pay the fee for favoured traffic, while new and small competitors will not.
A more subtle and hence more insidious threat to the internet as we know it is that increasingly, when people think they are using the internet, they really aren’t. This is particularly the case when smartphone and tablet apps replace internet-based services accessed with browsers. When you use apps, your phone or tablet may well use the internet to communicate with the service provider, but it is a strict two-way communication with a service central, not anything resembling networked communi- cation. It is in fact very like pre-internet times when you called a telephone service to get the time of day or a weather forecast. Browsers are multi-purpose communication tools that allow access to all content on the internet; apps are single-purpose tools that limit your communication and content to what the creators of the particular apps allow. This is a huge benefit to the service provider, as it limits your ability to access competitors. If you for instance use a browser to access Amazon’s online store, it is easy to look for
the same items in other online stores; but if you use the Amazon app, you have to leave the app, open an app for the other store, and search this store. What’s worse, some smartphone and tablet platforms today don’t even allow you to buy content except from stores associated with the company making the smartphone or tablet. With iPhones and iPads, you can only buy apps from Apple’s app store, and with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet, you can only buy apps from Amazon’s app store. These devices still feature browsers, but it is not unimaginable that future versions won’t, forcing you to rely on limited app stores – probably with the excuse that this is safer and more convenient for the user, which may even be true. Still, it is worth remembering Benjamin Franklin’s words: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
The internet as we know it was built on the philosophy of the liberty of everyone to access what they want and upload the content they want, without fear of surveillance and control. Are we willing to give up this essential liberty to gain a little short-term safety and convenience?