The internet of yesterday

The internet of yesterday wasn’t bulletproof, but you might say it was bullet-resistant.

It wasn’t regulated. It was totally distributed. It wasn’t dependent upon anything other than existing telephone infrastructure.

As the internet has matured, it’s now considerably less bulletproof. It’s regulated now – not only can authoritarian governments shut down access completely, as has been the case in various Arab Spring uprisings, but it can selectively filter what content can be accessed, as is the case with China’s Great Firewall, and selectively monitor what it’s citizens are doing online, as is the case with the United States’ internal security apparatchik’s data collection and analysis programs.

Beyond mere government control of the protocol, there are a few concerning chokepoints that have come about. The first and most perennially concerning is ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. After 1998, ICANN has essentially controlled all domain names on the internet. Since it was granted a dubious pseudo-governmental status by the US federal government, it’s an uncomfortable subject to think about. Who wants an unelected, ungovernable, unfireable body to control the internet?

Another chokepoint is the increasing popularity of CDNs (content distribution networks) which essentially cache websites for more efficient distribution over the world. It’s a technological advantage, to be sure, since CDNs make it exponentially easier to serve data globally without having to set up your own server network. But Cloudflare, for example, has the highest number of connections to internet exchange points of any entity in the world.

Related to this is access in general. Whereas access to the internet was formerly provided by countless local ISPs, the US in particular relies on fewer and fewer each year. The chances that your internet access is controlled by Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast is insanely high.

The internet started as a relatively decentralized system. It’s now anything but that.

We see this in everyday lives by the amount of content generated – where it used to be published on sites written and hosted by the authors themselves, most is now published on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. Even if someone has a personal blog, chances are it’s actually hosted on SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, Blogspot, WordPress.org or similar platform. There’s no actual control there – the service shuts your account down, you’re gone. And monetization has changed, as well – from sponsorships to paid advertising, which after all is what I do to pay the bills, just means there are fewer ways of actually making an income from your site.

This is a problem that, unfortunately, nobody will care about until it’s too late.

I said earlier that the internet of yesterday was almost bulletproof. That’s not entirely true, obviously – because it did change. It’s now very porous and centralized and homogenized.

I don’t think we can really change something nobody wants to change – making a actual technologically bulletproof system means nothing if nobody cares about using it or preserving autonomy and independence online. If everyone used PGP and Tor, we’d probably have a lot less hacks, but nobody will because nobody cares enough to deal with the inconvenience.

Similarly, nothing will change on the internet until the inconvenience of the centralization outstrips the inconvenience of changing to a decentralized, stronger protocol.

What could that inconvenience be? The government could shut down your internet. Facebook could shut down your profile. ICANN could confiscate your domain.

It’s unlikely, perhaps, but a billion people in China might think differently.