(Adapted from a post in my Hebrew blog from 11/05/2017)
The Internet enjoys a very romantic image in the eyes of many people. It is seen almost as some sort of global philosophy of freedom and sharing and equality, a space where anyone can communicate with anyone and all the borders come down. After almost thirty years of having it around, it’s often seen as an irreversible change to the nature of our society – information wants to be free, and once it has become free, it will never go back to its cage again.
What not many people seem to appreciate is the physical nature of the Internet. The Internet is not a technology, or an idea, or a study – things that once they appear in the world, it’s almost impossible to make them disappear (although not completely impossible – one of the most amazing and underappreciated facts of history is how much of society disappeared in the dark ages). No, the Internet is a physical infrastructure made of cables and routers under the physical control of different people and different organizations, and managed by DNS servers, themselves controlled by different people and organizations. The uncomfortable truth is that not many people need to make bad decisions for the Internet to become something very different than it is today, if not go away completely. Just look how easy it was for several governments in recent years to take away the Internet, or significant parts of it, when they felt the need for it. Do you think it’s only a third world problem, it will never happen in your country? I wouldn’t be so confident.
The famous cases of government censorship of the Internet are a worrying trend, but it’s only the most visible part of the problem. It’s been a long time since the Internet was a way for computer geeks from (kind of) all around the world to talk about science and programming and Star Trek. The Internet grew into a huge beast, powered by lots and lots of money. And with all that money lying around, each one of those companies that control some of that physical infrastructure has a strong incentive to always look for ways to ensure they can make money from the Internet and you cannot. And as more and more users go online, we get more and more people wanting to protect us from ourselves – how horrible would it be if we, not to mention our children, would accidentally read some dangerous or impolite information. The combination of these two trends creates a dangerous situation – imagine some of those groups controlling the infrastructure – governments, service providers, content creators, etc. – would decide use their control to create a monopoly or cartel; What would be easier than crying out that our children are exposed to dangerous materials on the Internet, and therefore we need to regulate it? Decide that from now on, creating a website requires a license from the government? We’re seeing more and more regulations and calls for regulations every year. It starts with ridiculous things like the EU cookie law, continues with laws requiring accessibility or comments regulation, and in the end why wouldn’t they require a license to run a website? After all, how many voters are there that actually run their own website and would be bothered by that?
In that sense, Internet regulation will work the same way any other “consumer protection” regulation works – most people prefer to be consumers rather than producers, so they’re happy to throw any possible legislation and limitation on the producers. Everything sounds good on paper – Why should we have hate speech in our Internet? Why shouldn’t every website be accessible for everyone? Why should we tolerate fake news? The big companies will be very happy to introduce every possible limitation possible to the lawmakers, who in turn will be happy to tell their voters how safe they are making the Internet for them. And individual website owners? They’ll be driven away just like any small business in a heavily regulated environment. Facebook and Amazon will be happy to get more and more regulation on the Internet, because they can afford the lawyers and designers needed to comply with everything (not to mention, the lobbyists that make those regulations to begin with). Your neighbour’s fifteen year-old son, which used to be the source of a significant percentage of websites in the early days of the Internet, is going to give up because he can’t take the risk. And the Internet will become the private property of some big companies. Is that a likely scenario? In my view it’s not only likely, but I would be amazed if it does not happen within the next thirty years. I don’t think someone like me will still be able to publish on the Internet by then.
And really, I cannot blame anyone. It’s not some evil conspiracy; It’s more like a natural progression of technologies. The Internet has become too big to remain that idealistic commune of computer geeks it was in the nineties. The environment where we access our bank accounts and pay taxes to our governments needs more strict rules than a forum where people talk about algorithms for sorting numbers. A vast majority of Internet users has no interest in freedom of information, or net neutrality, or their ability to create their own pages – They just want to browse their news websites and social networks given to them by whichever big company they don’t know; This might also include many of you, the readers, who might not even understand who is that “neighbor’s fifteen year-old son” from the previous paragraph because maybe you were not in the generation or the environment where that stereotype existed – Maybe you did not even experience those times where browsing the Internet would more often than not take you to the personal website of some teenager who set up a page to talk about something he or she was interested in. And it probably doesn’t even sound appealing to you – It was badly designed, unreliable, low quality – but this is what freedom looks like. Freedom is messy and badly designed, and most people don’t want it – on the Internet or elsewhere. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the claim that Facebook overtook MySpace because MySpace allowed users “too much freedom” in designing their profile pages, leading to bad looking pages. Well, this is the direction things are going to go – We will not have the ability to design things for ourselves, and most people will be perfectly fine with it.
For all those reasons, I actually wonder if all those Internet freedom and anti-censorship activists wouldn’t do better in changing their goals – instead of wanting to protect the Internet from these trends, maybe it’s better to concede defeat and look for creating some sort of alternative Internet in addition to the normal one – Some sort of mini-Internet without any of the power of the main one, but with the freedom; A cheap Internet that probably won’t be strong enough to deliver videos or secured enough to make financial transactions, and therefore it will be dull and boring and no one will want to use it except computer geeks who want to talk about science with each other. In other words, the nineties Internet, made better with some new ideas that came up since then, but without the money.
I think a reasonable parallel might be made with radio – I don’t know any technological difference between radio and the Internet that would explain the fact that on the radio we only listen, but on the Internet we also write. When the technology was just beginning, every radio geek could broadcast whatever they wanted, with or without listeners. Eventually it became too big to be managed this way, became regulated, and as part of that regulation some frequencies were given to those geeks to communicate with each other while the rest of the world listens to whatever the radio equivalent of Facebook is. It’s called ham radio and I’ve personally never tried it, but it sounds nice. I think it’s not unlikely that this is the direction the free Internet is going, which is a little bit unfortunate, but we need to accept our situation, and take what we can. We cannot run these cables all around the world ourselves – the big money does that, and we need to play by big money’s rules.