Silos, Centralization And Censorship: Losing The Promise Of The Internet

from the a-tale-of-two-clouds dept

The somewhat apocryphal purpose of the early internet was to have a system that could survive a nuclear war, by building it in nodes, such that it couldn’t be knocked out easily. That distributed and decentralized concept had many other benefits as well. Somewhat famously, 25 years ago, John Gillmore declared“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” And there remains some truth to that… in part. But the internet has changed drastically over the decades, and we’re now living in the age of the cloud — which might better be described as the age of the large third party who can be influenced.

Bruce Schneier has written up an interesting article discussing how the rise of the cloud has also enabled much more censorship.

Internet censors have a new strategy in their bid to block applications and websites: pressuring the large cloud providers that host them. These providers have concerns that are much broader than the targets of censorship efforts, so they have the choice of either standing up to the censors or capitulating in order to maximize their business. Today?s internet largely reflects the dominance of a handful of companies behind the cloud services, search engines and mobile platforms that underpin the technology landscape. This new centralization radically tips the balance between those who want to censor parts of the internet and those trying to evade censorship. When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors’ demands, how long can internet freedom last?

It’s a good question, and one that I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few years. I think it’s an overreaction to blame the concept of “the cloud.” Indeed, the idea of moving information onto the internet, rather than buried on local machines has some massive benefits, including the ability to access the information and services from any device, as well as being able to (sometimes) connect various services together and accomplish much more.

The real problem to me — and one I’ve spoken about going back many years — is that today’s “cloud” is not the “cloud” we should want. It’s become a series of silos. Silos owned by large companies. But there’s no reason it needs to remain that way. There is simply no reason that we can’t build a “cloud” in which end users retain full control over their data. They may allow third party services to access and interact with that data, but it’s bizarre how the vision of the “cloud” has turned into a world where it basically just means Google, Microsoft, IBM, Rackspace, whoever else, hosting all your data and retaining all of the control to it, including the control to take it down and make it disappear.

Most of Schneier’s piece focuses on Russia’s somewhat Quixotic focus on shutting down Telegram, but notes that what happens is almost entirely up to a few large internet companies, and how much they’ll push back on pressure from Russia (or other governments):

Tech giants have gotten embroiled in censorship battles for years. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fold, but until now there have always been options. What this particular fight highlights is that internet freedom is increasingly in the hands of the world’s largest internet companies. And while freedom may have its advocates?the American Civil Liberties Union has tweeted its support for those companies, and some 12,000 people in Moscow protested against the Telegram ban?actions such as disallowing domain fronting illustrate that getting the big tech companies to sacrifice their near-term commercial interests will be an uphill battle. Apple has already removed anti-censorship apps from its Chinese app store.

But it’s unfortunate that that is the end result. Sometimes it’s good that there are large companies who will (sometimes) fight these battles for smaller players, but that shouldn’t be the last resort to protect against censorship of the type that Russia and China and other countries seek. For years we’ve been saying that it’s time for us to rethink the internet, and move back towards a more decentralized, distributed world in which this kind of censorship isn’t even an issue. It hasn’t happened yet, but it feels like we’re increasingly moving towards a world in which that’s going to be necessary if we want to retain what is best about the internet.

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Comments on “Silos, Centralization And Censorship: Losing The Promise Of The Internet”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Indeed, the idea of moving information onto the internet, rather than buried on local machines has some massive benefits,

It is only a benefit where it is difficult to set up a simple home server, due to lack of fixed IP addresses for home connections. There is no need for a DNS entry for a home file server, or mutual backup arrangements between friends, or other private networks over the Internet infrastructure.

DNS is only needed for public servers, and and there maintained virtual servers in a location with multiple fiber connections is beneficial.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is only a benefit where it is difficult to set up a simple home server, due to lack of fixed IP addresses for home connections.

No, "the cloud" has benefits when

  • your low upstream bandwidth means stuff will take too long to download (e.g., upload all night to the cloud, then download quickly from work)
  • your connection is unstable
  • expensive or unreliable electricity prevents you from leaving a home computer on
  • you’re getting DDoSed or otherwise overwhelmed by traffic
  • or when it’s just easier
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There are these things called SD cards and thumb drives which are useful when you know you need to transport data.

I did say a fixed IP is required.

Single board computers, and batteries, and a backup on another family member or friends computer.

I did say cloud for public facing web sites, where higher traffic is expected.

Home based server are useful where privacy is desirable, while the cloud is better for public activities. However the problem in most places is that home connection rely on DHCP, and do not have a fixed IP address.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The IP address isn’t a huge problem. Lots of people use dynamic DNS services; they’re even built into some routers. An SD card works fine for the work example, as you’d be traveling between the locations. A photo/video album for a family member who lives in another city might be a better example (let’s assume mailing microSD cards isn’t convenient).

Single board computers, and batteries, and a backup on another family member or friends computer.

That’s all good, but needs to be made easier for inexperienced people to set up. Walk into a Best Buy and ask them how to do it without signing up for a "cloud" service. I don’t know of any product they sell for that, and those employees know more than the average person.

(The Freedom Box project had plans to do it. I haven’t heard much lately.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Lots of people use dynamic DNS services;

It is an extra complication, and makes your servers somewhat public.

The upload time will be about the same whether you push to a cloud server, or push or have a family member pull the file.

Setting up a Raspberry Pi, following the Instruction that can be found online is a simple enough exercise, as is setting up public/private key SSH. Also, it is easy enough for one person to set up an SD card and send it and a back up to member of the family that are scared of trying to do so. They can even carry out remote management.

A sensibly secure system always requires a little bit of work, and for a private server, unless set up by a trusted person, should not be plug and go, which is a common vulnerability for IOT devices.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

It is an extra complication, and makes your servers somewhat public.

Not as complicated as setting up a Raspberry Pi (as much as I like the idea). If you’re worried about your IP being known, you’re probably already using Tor, so do what I do: run ssh as an Onion Service with HiddenServiceAuthorizeClient. Then nobody can connect without knowing the key—but the dynamic IP isn’t a problem at all. (The few hundred milliseconds of latency can be annoying, but it’s usable. Or you can just ask the server for its real IP and connect over that.)

The upload time will be about the same whether you push to a cloud server, or push or have a family member pull the file.

Yes, but I don’t have a server in each of my family member’s houses. If it takes me 8 hours to upload a video, they’ll have to leave their laptop on, continuously connected, for those 8 hours. If that’s an hour-long video, streaming will be impossible. Whereas if I spend the 8 hours uploading to a datacenter (no problem for me, I’ll schedule it overnight), streaming from there will be no problem. No datacenter is running on shitty DSL because that’s all they could get.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Having to use dynamic DNS puts another corporation between users when in is not strictly necessary; and is another centralized control over users, and a database to leak user infomation to bad guys.

If relatives are not up to setting up a Pi, it is easy enough to set one up and post it to them, or just set-up and post the SD card. (None of this only use it on the hardware it was installed on that makes it difficult to move a Windows hard drive between machines). Also, with proper SSH setup, remote administration is easy and secure.

Anonymous Coward says:

"increasingly ... world's largest internet companies" ie GOOGLE

NEVER substance explicitly on GOOGLE here!

Anyone reasonable should go to the Copia site and STUDY this graphic:

Who’s behind those several corporations? Exactly why are they "sponsoring" Masnick?

Look around the Copia site, read a bit of the dull fluff. Is what’s visible worth anything to corporations? Even if just lend him their logos, that’s some risk, in return for what?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: "increasingly ... world's largest internet companies" ie GOOGLE

NEVER substance explicitly on GOOGLE here!

The article directly mentions Google as part of the centralization problem, and a key point in the article is that we should be figuring out ways to shift the competitive landscape away from Google.

And yet I still get accused by trolls like yourself of holding Google’s water, despite my widespread and repeated criticism of the company.

Sheesh. I bet if I called for the breaking up of Google, you’d still accuse me of supporting their agenda.

Yes, Google sponsored the launch of Copia. But so did one of Google’s largest and most vocal critics, Yelp (who has supported antitrust action against Google in the US and the EU). Funny that you always ignore that part.

Archillies says:

Re: Re: "increasingly ... world's largest internet companies" ie GOOGLE

Hey Mike,

I sense a growing frustration with the troll and I really understand that. Two things: 1)(and really hard sometimes) No need to feed the troll – they feed themselves. 2) troll skins make great boots – major defense points for your Hero.

Just a thought.

Have a happy weekend!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "increasingly ... world's largest internet companies" ie GOOGLE

Sheesh. I bet if I called for the breaking up of Google, you’d still accuse me of supporting their agenda.

Seriously, Masnick. For the love of all things logical and rational, put out an article that says Google claims that breathing oxygen is essential to human function.

It’s about time blue qualified for the Darwin Awards.

SortOfSerious says:


Lemme start my FIDONET server and you dial in and we’ll have a free exchange of ideas or better I’ll start my packetnet radio and you can avoid the phone charge or hook up a meshnetwork and use Internet Protocol to do the same.

Bottom line, we DON’T need the big players who cave to demands that will impact their bottom line. We have tools and ingenuity that can be applied if we choose to.

Anonymous Coward says:

What does Misnick advocate that directly helps YOU?

Show me any benefit to YOU of even "free content" that’s not a cover story for advocating a far larger purpose: for Google to use and "monetize" all content it finds.

Show me how YOU benefit from Google gate-keeping on nearly all search, which means to large degree controlling all thought by simply hiding alternative views.

Show me where Masnick sticks up for YOUR First Amendment Rights that aren’t actually subject to arbitrary control by "platforms".

No, kids. You’ve fallen for simple tricks. Masnick advocates piracy and rails against copyright not for YOUR benefit, but for corporations.

Masnick holds that Section 230 CDA licenses corporations to over-ride YOUR Free Speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

A "pattern of misconduct against its conservative personnel"

"Google Exec Threatens To Unmask Whistleblowers Who Report Misconduct Toward Conservatives"

A senior vice president at Google [Urs H”lzle] is promising to act against employees who raise their voices against the company’s alleged pattern of misconduct against its conservative personnel.

Now, you kids who actually (if secretly) cheer when it’s "conservatives" are stupidly accepting Google / corporations as censor, especially with Masnick’s constant assertion that corporations have a "Right" to control "their" platforms (which are actually intended to be The Public’s Forums); you’re only idiots to do so, are not actually even useful to Them, will become targets if ever insufficiently "liberal".

Anonymous Coward says:

“The cloud” has nothing to do with this. There is no “age of the cloud”. All “the cloud” is is the ability to host your software in someone else’s server farm and is not materially different from hosting your software on your own premises. “The cloud” is nothing more than “where your servers are hosted” and has technically been going on since the beginning of the internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

not materially different from hosting your software on your own premises

You’re talking as if "the cloud" is nothing more than virtual hosting, when in reality it’s as nebulous as the term suggests. Some users never have the software, just the ability to make requests to it. Often they can’t even get the raw data. They can’t just shut the server down, transfer a disk image to their own, and restart it.

Lock-in is the name of the game. The "age of the cloud" is the idea that this is a reasonable way to do things.

Ninja (profile) says:

Part of the problem is that one country (the US) or a handful of countries have a ton of power over what happens on the internet. Think ICANN for instance.

I do like how there are efforts to decentralize the underlying protocols that govern the internet so nobody can really take anything down. I’m fairly sure there will be awful stuff like child porn and other nasty stuff out there but we should make sure those who post it are punished. Hard. And not bowing to the pressure of censorship happy countries.

I’m not quite sure how to fix it now but at the very least it’s good there are people trying.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sorry for the follow bit of rant but ICANN’s connection to the US government is and always has been tenuous at best. Please check ICANN’s history for confirmation ( – they are screwed up because that is what they have become not because of government influences.

Note “Contracted by the US government”

Iggy says:

So much progress in software and information and yet theres only so much to be done with bad government policy.

Decentralized networks in an age of monopolies
Autonomous cars and wayfinding apps in dumb cities
A thousand different messaging apps unable to talk to each other

There’s only so much technology itself can do. The internet was the product of a bygone world with better thought out laws and more accountable politicians than today. In many ways, we’re worse off than before.

Hugo Connery (profile) says:

Flamewars and other joys

“There is no cloud, only other people’s computers” FSF Europe.

I am totally on board with what MM is saying here, but please must we use the ephemeral and meaningless term “cloud”?

Eben Moglen was trying to push the distributed approach with “Freedom Box” (an easy to configure, low powered combo server of a website + email etc.) but that project seems to have died.

There are two problems: deployment and uptake. Configuring all the techery to get yourself a secure web service (of whatever type) is non-trivial. Getting other people to use said service is the other challenge.

We are living in the age of “convenience”. This, I suspect, relates to the fact that wages have stagnated for the last 30 years and people are living close to their means. They lack the patience and/or time to devote to participating in a distributed web. Add to that the network effect and that’s why you get Bookface and Titter etc..

Once you’ve got that, you get censorship. It all started with copyright protection, then it was scrubbing the neo-nazi propaganda, etc. etc. and then when they came for me there was no one left to band up with to protest.

We’ve seen this before. Its sad. MM is right to speak out against the risks of centralization.

Can anyone remember Snowden? NSA piggybacking of the centralized big players. Distributed is defense in depth.

My two bits, Hugo

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Flamewars and other joys

Thumbs up Hugo – exactly right regarding the problems of personal servers.

I do believe the FreedomBox project is still alive though. The stable release was in January 2017 but progress continues. There is a progress call June 24,2018 @ 1700 UTC if you are interested.

I occasionally run a freedom box for some personal services in particular when traveling. I’ve found that a little hardware experience helps when dealing with the Single Board Computers (SBCs) and it helps to have a little Debian Linux experience.


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