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.