Whose Net is it anyway?

First Published by Linux User & Developer.

Just imagine. The sum of all human knowledge available at your fingertips via a desktop machine. In 1985, that would have seemed like a dream. In 1945 when Vannevar Bush posited such a system – the Memex – in his essay As We May Think, it would have seemed like magic. Yet here we are. With Google and a razor sharp search term, you can now access a significant portion of all human knowledge. Indeed, some would say that the World Wide Web has exceeded Bush’s original vision: it’s not just a repository of information, it’s a communications tool that millions of people rely upon every day.

I was recently invited to take part in a debate hosted by The Economist and the RSA (The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which asked whether the Internet’s golden age was over. I found it a hard question to answer, because I don’t believe that the Internet has ever had a golden age. The idea of the Net as having been built by the people for the people is a fallacy. If anything, the Net was built by defence researchers for defence researchers, and ‘the people’ only got a look in relatively recently. Throughout most of its history, the Net was accessible only to a relatively small group of people, but since the invention of the World Wide Web opened it up to the public, it has become polluted by spammers, abused by pornographers, and co-opted by big business.

I think there is a long way to go before the Internet reaches its full potential, but unless we are vigilant it never will: The Net as we know it is under threat. Let’s take Trusted Computing. A group of companies – including IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sun – are banding together to create a system of hardware and software which would give them control over your computer. They would get to veto which applications you run and what content you can view.

Ostensibly there’s a quid pro quo here. You agree to let the Trusted Computing Group choose which software you run in return for having safe and secure access to their content. That’s a fair deal, right? You cede control to help them combat piracy and improve security. But the trouble with that is once you’ve given away control, it becomes terribly hard to get it back again, and there’d be nothing to stop them deleting or disabling ‘unapproved’ software. This may not seem like much of a threat to the Net, but if Trusted Computing becomes commonplace, that could be the end of P2P, of open source, of APIs and Greasemonkey. Your anonymity would be stripped away and you’d be laid wide open to remote censorship – not an extreme prediction when you consider that TiVo are already remotely deleting TV shows without TiVo owners’ consent.

Another threat is the end of net neutrality. We’ve always taken for granted the fact that access to the Internet is agnostic – once I’ve paid for access, my ISP doesn’t care which sites I visit. But the carriers – the telcos, cable companies and ISPs – want to create a tiered Internet where the popular sites such as Google and Ebay pay extra every time someone visits them. It would be the death of a thousand tolls for the Internet. Previously viable business models would become untenable. And where there’s a toll there’s a billing system, and billing data is in itself a valuable asset that can be sold or stolen, compromising your privacy.

Finally, (for this article at least – for there is no ‘finally’ when we are talking about threats to the digital frontiers at which many of us make our livings), we have data retention. The Data Retention Directive was frogmarched through the European Parliament before Christmas 2005. It forces ISPs to retain information about your web surfing habits and makes this data available to a wide variety of so-called ‘competent bodies’, such as your local Council or the Department for Work and Pensions.

The music and film industries have been angling to get a good look too, because they’d just love to be able to figure out who’s doing all that pesky file sharing. They won’t much care whether or not you’re sharing files legally or not, they just want to bring more lawsuits, and to shut down the P2P networks en masse. Your anonymity, your privacy, your right to choose how you use the Net. All that is under threat. Data Retention is mass surveillance, plain and simple.

The Internet’s golden age is not over because it hasn’t happened yet. But it never will happen unless we can thwart those who would seek to control it, to emasculate it, to lock it down. The Net has a rosy future ahead of it – social software, mass collaboration, and mobile access are meaning that more people are getting more out of the Net than ever before. But if we don’t protect it, we will lose it.