It is a sobering time for freedom of expression around the world. According to a recent study by Freedom on the Net, two-thirds of all Internet users live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family is subject to censorship. Over the past year, authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on what users posted on social media. 27% of all Internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
This is startling given that the Internet was created for people to have unrestricted access to information and communication without fear of censorship or surveillance. The creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, even imagined the web as “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.” Yet 28 years later, Berners-Lee’s vision of a free and open internet has been replaced by government firewalls, Internet Service Provider surveillance, and corporate data harvesting.
The Internet is not the first consolidated medium of communication. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, details the history of the information industry in his book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Each new form of media — the telegraph, telephone, radio, film, and television — was born free and open but later evolved into a closed and controlled industry or monopoly. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experimentation until some mogul consolidated the medium into a ruthless monopoly that controlled what all users saw. But then the cycle repeats. A disruptive founder invents a new communication technology that breaks the stranglehold of the current information monopoly. The monopoly collapses, and a new free form of communication emerges until it becomes consolidated once again.
This process is so typical that Wu calls it “The Cycle.” We can think of “The Cycle” as waves of new technologies.
Let’s use the telephone as an example. In 1876, telegraph company Western Union controlled the distribution of news, to the point that it determined the election that year by preventing negative coverage of Rutherford B. Hayes from being publicized. Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone the same year. At first, Western Union didn’t want the telephone to pose a threat to its telegraph business and thus relegated the telephone to local business services.
This proved to be the undoing of Western Union. Bell started American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1885. Theodore Vail later took over AT&T and began a ruthless campaign of predatory pricing and sabotage to consolidate hundreds of independent telephone companies under AT&T. Ultimately, AT&T purchased Western Union in 1909 and thus controlled all long distance communication in the U.S.
Now fast forward to the 21st century. With almost all our media traveling across a single network called the Internet, an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what we see and hear. Is history repeating itself yet again with the next industrial consolidation of the Internet? Could the Internet be ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of “the master switch”?
We’ve come a long way since John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. This 1996 manifesto espoused a simple message — the Internet simply exists outside the jurisdiction of any country’s sovereignty and cannot be controlled by oppressive political and corporate forces.
Two decades later, this manifesto reads like a libertarian Cyberpunk utopia. The free and open Internet is now centralized and controlled by a handful of companies that provide services such as search, social networking, and cloud storage. If left unchecked, these centralized platforms could continue their control of information, personal data, and communication on the Internet.
Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, argues that we live in a new feudal society. The rise of cloud computing, for instance, means that we are dependent on servers at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft for our emails, photos, messages, and documents. We sacrifice complete control over our data and pledge allegiance to large, powerful corporations. These corporations, in turn, protect us from sysadmin duties and security threats.
A feudal society consolidates power into the hands of a powerful few. We are serfs to our company overlords. Our lords use their relationship with us to increase their profit, sometimes at our expense if our incentives are misaligned. Medieval feudalism gave lords vast powers over their landless peasants; we are seeing the same trend happening on the Internet. Medieval feudalism was the response to a dangerous world after the collapse of the Roman Empire. We, similarly, need convenience, portability, and durability of our data in addition to protection from cybercriminals and nation-state hackers.
At the same time, a centralized Internet poses many risks. A report by the MIT Media Lab identifies four dangers: top-down direct censorship, curatorial bias, abuse of curatorial power, and exclusion.
First, consolidated digital platforms are more prone to direct censorship and surveillance pressures from governments than decentralized platforms. Platform companies must comply with local laws and regulations regarding free speech and censorship in order to stay in business. In spring of 2016, for instance, Facebook blocked users in Thailand from seeing satirical pages of the King and Royal Family of Thailand. Later that year, Facebook, at the pressure of U.S. law enforcement, also took down videos of a Baltimore woman who was shot and killed by the police.
Second, curation algorithms of major platforms can result in unintentional biases. Google and Facebook rely on advertisers for revenue. Their business models create an “attention economy,” in which maximizing user engagement incentivizes the platforms to favor virality over veracity. This has led to the proliferation of misinformation or “fake news” — click-bait headlines that confirm voters’ pre-existing political beliefs at the expense of fact-based coverage of current events.
Third, platforms can abuse their curatorial powers. For instance, Facebook has been accused of suppressing conservative news stories from the “Trending” news section, despite the stories being identified as hot topics by the platform’s curation algorithm. Companies have no legal obligation to disclose how they prioritize content, and thus it is very difficult for an outsider to detect abuses of curatorial powers.
Fourth, digital platforms can exclude certain groups from political and social discourse. Groups — ranging from LGBT to journalists to indigenous communities — have been excluded from Facebook’s platform. Some users have even been flagged and suspended for expressing unpopular political opinions.
Lastly, and most importantly, “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties,” according to the 1979 Supreme Court case Smith v. Maryland. This ruling made sense back in 1979 when the Internet didn’t exist; today we rely on countless third-party companies to store our data. People reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks, and such data isn’t subject to privacy protection under the Fourth Amendment.
We’ve seen how centralization of the Internet poses many problems. One major reason why centralization has occurred is because of the design of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which standardizes how we distribute and present information to each other. The way HTTP distributes content is extremely brittle and encourages consolidation of the Internet.
When you go to a website today, your browser has to be directly connected to the servers that are hosting the website, even if the servers are far away and the transfer process uses a lot of bandwidth. Moreover, HTTP downloads files from one computer at a time instead of downloading files from multiple computers simultaneously. Consequently, we’re stuck with a slow and expensive Internet that’s consolidating into a few central chokepoints.
The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a new peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol that aims to replace HTTP by changing location addressing to content addressing. IPFS eliminates the need for websites to have a central origin server. Instead of searching for locations of specific servers, IPFS lets you search for the content itself, which can be stored on any server on the Internet. Since the content is cryptographically verified, it can move through any untrusted middlemen without putting it at risk.
IPFS creates a fully distributed Internet in which applications don’t live on centralized servers but rather operate all over the network from users’ computers. IPFS makes content harder to censor because it’s peer-to-peer and decentralized. Even if the original publisher is taken down, as long as at least one node on the network has a copy of the content, everyone will be able to get it. If one IPFS gateway gets blocked, another one can be used. Like HTTP, IPFS can also work over Tor and other anonymity systems.
There have been two notable examples in the past when IPFS was useful for circumventing censorship. First is when the Turkish government blocked Wikipedia on April 29th. Snapshots of Wikipedia were immediately placed on IPFS so that Turkish citizens could circumvent the government censorship and view all Wikipedia content without reaching the website wikipedia.org itself. Second is when the Spanish government raided ISPs to block websites in support of the Catalan referendum on October 1st. The Catalan government then used IPFS to sidestep Spain’s legal block and ensured information about the referendum remained open on the Internet.
An alternative solution is bringing the notion of property rights to the Internet. In the current feudal Internet, a world without property rights, all of our data are kept in storage facilities owned by a few corporations. In this world, we disclose our personal information, places we’ve been to, and things we’ve bought to those few corporations. We are tracked 24/7, our data gets stolen in cyber breaches, and we can’t do anything about it. We are powerless serfs dependent on faceless corporate overlords.
Blockstack is building a new Internet on the blockchain that enables digital property rights. In this world, we own our own data and apps live locally on our devices. Corporate data centers are replaced with individual storage lockers where we own the keys to our respective lockers. Companies need permission from us to access our data. Rather than having users plug into company APIs, companies need to plug into user APIs.
Blockstack offers more stringent privacy protections of digital data. Under this new paradigm, the U.S. government needs a warrant or subpoena to search an individual’s data. This stands in contrast to dragnet surveillance of data centers, whose privacy protections are weakened by the “third-party doctrine” from Smith v. Maryland.
Blockstack also mimics a similar development in history during the transition from medieval Europe to the Renaissance. The notion of private property and property rights emerged during the Renaissance when international trade loosened the stranglehold of feudalism and gave rise to mercantilist ideas.
These ideas were further developed by English philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke proclaimed that property ownership derives from one’s labor, that the rights to property and life are inalienable rights, and that it is the duty of the state to secure these rights for individuals. Locke argued that the safeguarding of natural rights such as the right to property would help curtail political abuses by the state. Likewise, digital property rights would help curtail abuses in cyberspace by governments and corporations alike.
The Internet is becoming more restricted and controlled. Government and corporate spying are becoming more widespread, ISPs are blocking services they don’t want you to access, countries are blocking content they don’t want you to access, and our own data is being used against us. Current discussions tend to revolve around policy and finding ways to regulate platform companies, Internet Service Providers, and data protection.
Meanwhile, nascent technologies such as IPFS and Blockstack offer promising solutions to this sobering trend on the Internet. If history repeats itself again, technology will be the disruptor that enables us to fulfill Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s mission of creating “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”
This story is published in Noteworthy, where 10,000+ readers come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.