The Internet Was Meant to Make the World a Less Centralized Place, But the Opposite Happened

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Posted by: briansittley Comments: 0 0 Post Date: August 9, 2018

Recently The Economist took on the issue of how the internet has changed and what they think can be done about it.  As an article called “The Ins and Outs” from June 30th 2018 (multiple authors) notes:
“Until a few years ago most users, asked what they thought of the internet, would have rattled off a list of things they love about it – that it lets them stay in touch with friends, provides instant access to a huge range of information, sparks innovation, even helps to undermine authoritarian regimes.”
Early cyber-gurus like Tim Berners Lee and Vint Cerf hoped to create a system “biased in favor of decentralization of power and freedom to act,” according to Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler.  When the first internet message was launched on October 29, 1969, a new era of unfettered openness appeared to be on the horizon.
Today, The Economist suggests, there is much disenchantment over the ways in which today’s net has become so much more centralized – and is becoming increasingly so.
In the West, the internet is dominated by a few giants like Facebook and Google, and in China by firms like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.  As historian Niall Ferguson argues, this pattern – a disruptive new network being infiltrated by a new hierarchy – has many historical precedents, from the invention of the printing press through the time of the Industrial Revolution.
The internet has become much more strictly controlled, they note, pointing out that when users were mainly accessing via desktop or laptop computers, they could stumble across amazing new services and try many things for themselves.  These days however, more folks get online via phone and tablets that confine users “to carefully circumscribed spaces, which are hardly more exciting than television.”
In the early days, Vint Cerf and others worked to make the internet largely “permissionless.”  Any computer and any network could join in if it followed the right protocols.  Packets of data were handed from one network to another, regardless of contents.  This looseness is what caused Tim Berners Lee to come up with the basic idea for the world wide web, which worked on top of the internet’s basic structure.
“These protocols were complemented by a set of organizations that allowed the rules to evolve, along with the software that puts them into effect” and kept them from being hijacked by outside interests.  Most notable among these was the Internet Engineering Task Force, whose founder David Clark put forth the philosophy that probably best summed up the early innovators’ intent: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting.  We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”
This openness and flexible governance set off a flurry of innovation and activity and by the mid-1990s millions of websites were up and running, and thousands of startups were launched.  Even after the dotcom bubble collapse around 2000, decentralized activity like blogs and forums continued unabated, with links to one another creating an ever-evolving ecosystem.
Today the connections to transfer data still exist, as to ever-growing reams of data, much of it now residing in cloud-computing silos within mega-companies like Google and Facebook, all closely monitored and metered, while billions of smartphones tap their available – and closely curated and counted – content.  Someone is always watching.  And most likely, monetizing off your data.
Whether it’s due to the workings of an authoritarian country or a monopolistic company, the internet’s protocols, governance and controls have swiftly and subtly evolved, and they are never going back.
[The original article in the June 30, 2018 Economist has many more sections and is worth a read.  We’ve reviewed and rendered here only a small portion today due to space constraints.  Again, it’s worth a read.]

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