Two Important Speeches: The Threats To The Future Of The Internet… And How To Protect An Open Internet

from the pay-attention dept

Last week, I came across two separate speeches that were given recently about the future of the internet — both with very different takes and points, but both that really struck a chord with me. And the two seem to fit together nicely, so I’m combining both of them into one post. The first speech is Jennifer Granick’s recent keynote at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. You can see the video here or read a modified version of the speech entitled, “The End of the Internet Dream.”

It goes through a lot of important history — some of which is already probably familiar to many of you. But, it’s also important to remember how we got to where we are today in order to understand the risks and threats to the future of the internet. The key point that Granick makes is that for too long, we’ve been prioritizing a less open internet, in favor of a more centralized internet. And that’s a real risk:

For better or for worse, we?ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness. The Internet is less open and more centralized. It?s more regulated. And increasingly it?s less global, and more divided. These trends: centralization, regulation, and globalization are accelerating. And they will define the future of our communications network, unless something dramatic changes.

Twenty years from now,

  • You won?t necessarily know anything about the decisions that affect your rights, like whether you get a loan, a job, or if a car runs over you. Things will get decided by data-crunching computer algorithms and no human will really be able to understand why.
  • The Internet will become a lot more like TV and a lot less like the global conversation we envisioned 20 years ago.
  • Rather than being overturned, existing power structures will be reinforced and replicated, and this will be particularly true for security.
  • Internet technology design increasingly facilitates rather than defeats censorship and control.

Later in the speech, she digs deeper into those key trends of centralization, regulation and globalization:

  • Centralization means a cheap and easy point for control and surveillance.
  • Regulation means exercise of government power in favor of domestic, national interests and private entities with economic influence over lawmakers.
  • Globalization means more governments are getting into the Internet regulation mix. They want to both protect and to regulate their citizens. And remember, the next billion Internet users are going to come from countries without a First Amendment, without a Bill of Rights, maybe even without due process or the rule of law. So these limitations won?t necessarily be informed by what we in the U.S. consider basic civil liberties.

This centralization is often done in the name of convenience — because centralized systems currently offer up plenty of cool things:

Remember blogs? Who here still keeps a blog regularly? I had a blog, but now I post updates on Facebook. A lot of people here at Black Hat host their own email servers, but almost everyone else I know uses gmail. We like the spam filtering and the malware detection. When I had an iPhone, I didn?t jailbreak it. I trusted the security of the vetted apps in the Apple store. When I download apps, I click yes on the permissions. I love it when my phone knows I?m at the store and reminds me to buy milk.

This is happening in no small part because we want lots of cool products ?in the cloud.? But the cloud isn?t an amorphous collection of billions of water droplets. The cloud is actually a finite and knowable number of large companies with access to or control over large pieces of the Internet. It?s Level 3 for fiber optic cables, Amazon for servers, Akamai for CDN, Facebook for their ad network, Google for Android and the search engine. It?s more of an oligopoly than a cloud. And, intentionally or otherwise, these products are now choke points for control, surveillance and regulation.

So as things keep going in this direction, what does it mean for privacy, security and freedom of expression? What will be left of the Dream of Internet Freedom?

She goes on to note how this centralization comes with a very real cost: mainly in that it’s now one-stop shopping for government surveillance.

Globalization gives the U.S. a way to spy on Americans?by spying on foreigners we talk to. Our government uses the fact that the network is global against us. The NSA conducts massive spying overseas, and Americans? data gets caught in the net. And, by insisting that foreigners have no Fourth Amendment privacy rights, it?s easy to reach the conclusion that you don?t have such rights either, as least when you?re talking to or even about foreigners.

Surveillance couldn?t get much worse, but in the next 20 years, it actually will. Now we have networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, that will keep track of our home heating, and how much food we take out of our refrigerator, and our exercise, sleep, heartbeat, and more. These things are taking our off-line physical lives and making them digital and networked, in other words, surveillable.

At the end of her speech, Granick talks about the need to “build in decentralization where possible,” to increase strong end-to-end encryption, to push back on government attempts to censor and spy.

And that’s where the second speech comes in. It’s by the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle. And while he actually gave versions (one longer one and one shorter one) earlier this year, he just recently wrote a blog post about why we need to “lock the internet open” by building a much more distributed web — which would counteract many of Granick’s quite accurate fears about our growing reliance on centralized systems.

Kahle also notes how wonderful new services are online and how much fun the web is — but worries about the survivability of a centralized system and the privacy implications. He notes how the original vision of the internet was about it being a truly distributed system, and it’s the web (which is a subsegment of the internet for those of you who think they’re the same), seems to be moving away from that vision.

Contrast the current Web to the Internet?the network of pipes on top of which the World Wide Web sits. The Internet was designed so that if any one piece goes out, it will still function. If some of the routers that sort and transmit packets are knocked out, then the system is designed to automatically reroute the packets through the working parts of the system. While it is possible to knock out so much that you create a chokepoint in the Internet fabric, for most circumstances it is designed to survive hardware faults and slowdowns. Therefore, the Internet can be described as a ?distributed system? because it routes around problems and automatically rebalances loads.

The Web is not distributed in this way. While different websites are located all over the world, in most cases, any particular website has only one physical location. Therefore, if the hardware in that particular location is down then no one can see that website. In this way, the Web is centralized: if someone controls the hardware of a website or the communication line to a website, then they control all the uses of that website.

In this way, the Internet is a truly distributed system, while the Web is not.

And, thus, he wants to build a more distributed web, built on peer-to-peer technology that has better privacy, distributed authentication systems (without centralized usernames and passwords), a built-in versioning/memory system and easy payment mechanisms. As he notes, many of the pieces for this are already in existence, including tools like BitTorrent and the blockchain/Bitcoin. There’s a lot more in there as well, and you should read the whole thing.

Our new Web would be reliable because it would be hosted in many places, and multiple versions. Also, people could even make money, so there could be extra incentive to publish in the Distributed Web.

It would be more private because it would be more difficult to monitor who is reading a particular website. Using cryptography for the identity system makes it less related to personal identity, so there is an ability to walk away without being personally targeted.

And it could be as fun as it is malleable and extendable. With no central entities to regulate the evolution of the Distributed Web, the possibilities are much broader.

Fortunately, the needed technologies are now available in JavaScript, Bitcoin, IPFS/Bittorrent, Namecoin, and others. We do not need to wait for Apple, Microsoft or Google to allow us to build this.

What we need to do now is bring together technologists, visionaries, and philanthropists to build such a system that has no central points of control. Building this as a truly open project could in itself be done in a distributed way, allowing many people and many projects to participate toward a shared goal of a Distributed Web.

Of course, Kahle is hardly the first to suggest this. Nearly five years ago we were writing about some attempts at a more distributed web, and how we were starting to see elements of it showing up in places the old guard wouldn’t realize. Post-Snowden, the idea of a more distributed web got a big boost, with a bunch of other people jumping in as well.

It’s not there yet (by any stretch of the imagination), but a lot of people have been working on different pieces of it, and some of them are going to start to catch on. It may take some time, but the power of a more decentralized system is only going to become more and more apparent over time.

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Comments on “Two Important Speeches: The Threats To The Future Of The Internet… And How To Protect An Open Internet”

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randomjoe (profile) says:

Jerry Pournelle

A quote from Jerry Pournelle seems appropriate. He speaks of energy, but this could also apply to the internet.

“I do know some fundamental economic truths – at least they are ‘true’ in the sense that they come from observation, not theory. I have stated them before. Energy and freedom lead to prosperity. Restricting energy and adding not freedom but commands and regulation lead to downward economic pathways. Thus has it been, and thus will it be.

“Civilization trends toward converting more and more of its output to structure. Infrastructure or superstructure isn’t important: output is seized and converted to structure, and the largest beneficiaries of that are bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are devoted to the preservation and expansion of the bureaucracy and its members, and only secondarily to the purposes for which they were founded. Thus has it been, and thus will it be.”

ConcernedCitizen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Jerry Pournelle

I might be misreading the quote, but I think the “isn’t important” is referring to the distinction between “infra-” versus “super-” structure.

Also, although John Oliver is very funny, the video you linked to was regarding maintaining existing infrastructure, which is only tangential to the quote from Jerry Pournelle. I think the quote is about the tendency of civilization to create more structure (new structure), and because bureaucracy benefits from structure, then bureaucracy grows as civilization does. But the real crux of the argument is that bureaucracies care more about self-preservation and expanding than they do about fulfilling their original purpose, i.e., bureaucracy is a parasite that grows as the structural output of its host grows.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Jerry Pournelle

I think the quote is about the tendency of civilization to create more structure (new structure),

…which we could certainly use! From highways to power grids to Internet connectivity, our existing infrastructure is getting overloaded and needs to be generally expanded across the board to meet the needs of modern times.

Note to nitpickers: “Generally” means “in general, it needs to be expanded more than it doesn’t.” It does not mean “everything needs to be expanded indiscriminately;” it is possible to do this in an intelligent, rational, need-based manner.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Jerry Pournelle

LOL…As much as I loved Jerry Peurnelle’s end-user hardware column in ‘Byte Magazine,’ he is a writer and not a technical person. I always thought of him as my personal Mikey. And he promote himself as that. Economics is a technical field well outside Pournelle’s intellectual scope.

[This space left blank while I think of a memorable book by Pournelle.]

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

We already tried once to build a decentralized Internet: the Internet. And this is what has happened to it. What makes anyone think trying again will achieve a different result? (Insert Einstein’s definition of insanity here.)

Centralization and hierarchy are the fundamental social pattern of human nature. For all the disadvantages that may come with them, they work, because the basic pattern seems to be hardwired into our brains. And by “work” I mean, specifically, “they are generally successful at creating a stable social structure.” And the Internet is a social structure just as much as it is a technological one.

As much as certain readers may not wish to believe this, because it clashes with certain ideological principles, just try to name a counterexample. Anywhere in all of human history, can you point to a social structure comprised of 100 or more people that continued to exist and remained stable, or continued to grow and prosper, for more than 25 years, without a well-defined hierarchy shaped essentially like a pyramid?

Most attempts don’t make it nearly that long before collapsing. One of the most notable examples in recent years was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which deliberately shunned hierarchy and leadership… and collapsed into insignificance almost right away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a spectacularly sad waste of potential; they could have accomplished so much, and done a lot of good, if they had been properly organized!

So go ahead. Try to build a new Internet based on new technology to decentralize things again. It won’t work, for essentially the same reason DRM doesn’t work: as Techdirt likes to point out, trying to apply a technical solution to a social problem is doomed to failure.

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

I am not sure that the proper way to describe the collapse of the “Occupy Wall Street” was inherrent in its structure, or lack thereof. But more that it was beaten into a monolayer by the thugs of the official NYPD and the hirelings of Wall Street, some of whom were offtime official NYPD.

Ned Ludd says:

Re: Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

That is actually an understatement of what happened to Occupy.

It was a nationwide coordination by the FBI, DHS and local police under the rubric that Occupy was a terrorist threat that crushed the movement. That is not hyperbole, if anything I am down-playing what happened.

Read the analysis here:

rapnel (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

^ that. Occupy gave me exactly one message – if you want change you’re going to have to go a lot bigger. In America the movement was so controlled as to be the equivalent of annihilation on the battlefield. That was neither luck nor lack of will on the part of the occupiers. Intel wins wars.

combine that with a complacent populace that would rather eat than vote and spend more, much more, on making arms than making children smart and.. bam.. show’s over.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

they could have accomplished so much, and done a lot of good, if they had been properly organized!

Strong organization is the very thing that were objecting to, as it leads to barons and other elites who take an excessive share of the worlds resources.

Further same people did a lot of good after Sandy, and in response to various disasters such as earthquakes, because they can recognize a need and rapidly form add hoc groups to meet that need.

A hierarchical organisation is required when communications are restricted to one to one systems, with axillary broadcast systems to get information from the centre to the masses. When you have many to many systems like twitter, Facebook etc., self organisation is possible because any person can post data and make requests without knowing where the data or request should be routed because it goes into a pool, and everybody taking an interest can see it, and any responses.

ConcernedCitizen (profile) says:

Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

I think you need to re-read the article. The Internet is successfully decentralized; it’s the world-wide web that is not. Internet != web

So if the technological marvel that we call the Internet can be decentralized, why do you find it so impossible that a protocol running on top of it cannot also be decentralized?

ConcernedCitizen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

Wifi mesh networks are a fascinating alternative to hardwired connections. But that is at the same networking level as the Internet. The focus of the debate is on decentralizing the protocols running on top of that, www specifically. Check out this list of alternatives:

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

How is that “no problem”?

You’re familiar with the concept of lock-in? The Web is a system that has a lock-in relationship with a significant fraction of the entire population of Earth. The idea that successfully replacing something like that is “no problem” takes a hard left at Wrong and drives straight on through the night, all the way to Delusionalville.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

How is the web system of lock-in? Also, the web is not the internet.

My point is that you’re correct — when business comes into an arena, it pretty much destroys it. That’s what’s happened to the internet. It’s an inevitable progression.

As such, to think of “the internet” as something that is or should be eternal is a mistake. It can’t be. Systems like this, once they become popular enough to be profit centers, will always be destroyed and replaced by something else.

It’s not delusional, it’s the way these things have always worked.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

Much like many political and social systems were born an died along the history of mankind. But I still think there can be a way to make a truly decentralized system that will keep the internet running. We talk about facebooks and googles as if they are the only solutions out there but there are others. It’s just that people still don’t value privacy enough to go for these.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

How is the web system of lock-in?

How is it not?

According to Wikipedia: “In economics, vendor lock-in, also known as proprietary lock-in or customer lock-in, makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs.” Replace the word “vendor” with “platform” and you have the very image of John Q. Public’s relationship with the World Wide Web, and to be honest, of yours and mine as well. I bet most, if not all, of your personal email–the very foundation of your online identity–runs through webmail services. Would it not impose “substantial switching costs” to leave that behind, just to give one example?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Noble ideas, but doomed to failure

Oh, I see — you’re talking about specific web services, not the web. Yes specific services can be (and many are) instances of lock-in. That has nothing to do with the web, though.

“I bet most, if not all, of your personal email–the very foundation of your online identity–runs through webmail services.”

And you would lose that bet. I don’t use webmail services I don’t operate for anything remotely important. Honestly, I can’t think of a single web site that I am locked in to even a little bit.

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