The internet was meant to make the world a less centralised place, but the opposite has happened. Ludwig Siegele explains why it matters, and what can be done about it.
Has the internet failed? Sitting in his office at Christ Church, an Oxford college, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has his answer ready: “I wouldn’t say the internet has failed with a capital F, but it has failed to deliver the positive, constructive society many of us had hoped for.”
Two decades ago, he would have scoffed at the idea that the internet and the web would do anything but make this planet a better place. In his autobiography written in the late 1990s, “Weaving the Web”, he concluded: “The experience of seeing the web take off by the grassroots effort of thousands gives me tremendous hope that…we can collectively make our world what we want.”
Until a few years ago most users, asked what they thought of the internet, would have rattled off a list of the things they love about it — that it lets them stay in touch with friends, provides instant access to a huge range of information, sparks innovation, even helps undermine authoritarian regimes. And in some ways it has been a tremendous success. Just under a quarter of a century after the first web browser was released, around half the world’s population is online. But like Sir Tim, many people have recently become more critical of it, concerned that it creates online addicts, hoovers up everybody’s data and empowers malicious trolls and hackers.
At the heart of their disenchantment, this special report will argue, is that the internet has become much more “centralised” (in the tech crowd’s terminology) than it was even ten years ago. Both in the West and in China, the activities this global network of networks makes possible are dominated by a few giants, from Facebook to Tencent. In his latest book, “The Square and the Tower”, Niall Ferguson, a historian, explains that this pattern — a disruptive new network being infiltrated by a new hierarchy — has many historical precedents. Examples range from the invention of the printing press to the Industrial Revolution.
At the same time the internet has become much more strictly controlled. When access to it was still mainly via desktop or laptop computers, users could stumble across amazing new services and try many things for themselves. These days the main way of getting online is via smartphones and tablets that confine users to carefully circumscribed spaces, or “walled gardens”, which are hardly more exciting than television channels. Makers of mobile operating systems can decide through their app stores which services smartphone owners have access to. Another control point is cloud computing, which by its nature puts outsiders in charge of applications and their associated data. Meanwhile governments, which long played no part in the internet, have established power over large parts of the network, often using big internet firms as willing enforcers, for instance by getting them to block unwelcome content.
This is more or less the opposite of what the early cyber-gurus had intended. When the first message was sent over the internet nearly half a century ago, on October 29th 1969, the system was “biased in favour of decentralisation of power and freedom to act”, according to Yochai Benkler of Harvard University. Its technological roots played a large part in that. A child of the cold war, the internet was meant to connect disparate networks and computers so they could still communicate even if central links became unavailable, say in the event of a nuclear attack. “We wanted anything connected to the net to connect to anything else connected to the net,” explains Vint Cerf, one of the engineers who developed the communication protocols (he now works for Google).
To make this possible, Mr Cerf and his colleagues had to make the internet “permissionless”, in today’s lingo. Any network and any computer can join in as long as it follows the protocols. Packets of data are handed from one network to another, regardless of content. This loosely coupled architecture later inspired Sir Tim, who devised the protocols for the world wide web that work on top of the internet proper.
Those protocols were complemented by a set of organisations that allowed the rules to evolve, along with the software that puts them into effect, and keep both from being captured by outside interests. Chief among them has been the Internet Engineering Task Force, whose philosophy was perfectly summed up by David Clark, one of its founders: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”
The combination of open technical rules and flexible governance set off a frenzy of creativity and innovation. Starting in the mid-1990s, millions of websites were set up and tens of thousands of startups launched. Even after the dotcom bubble collapsed in the early 2000s, this decentralised activity continued unabated, for instance in the form of blogs. Users actually did what Sir Tim had hoped they would: publish online and link to each other, creating a great virtual conversation.
Today the internet is a very different beast. The connections to transfer information still exist, as do the protocols, but the extensions the internet has spawned now greatly outweigh the original network: billions of smartphones and other devices, and cloud-computing factories the size of football fields, containing unimaginable quantities of data. The best way to picture all this is as a vast collection of data silos with big pipes between them, connected to all kinds of devices which both deliver services and collect more data.
The centralisation of the internet and the growing importance of data has given rise to what Frank Pasquale of the University of Maryland, in a recent paper published in American Affairs, calls a “Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian divide” among critics of big tech. One group stands in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, who favoured smaller government and less concentration in business. Its members want to rein in the tech titans through tougher antitrust policies, including break-ups. The other group follows the thinking of Alexander Hamilton, another founding father, who supported strong central institutions, both in politics and in the economy. Its adherents argue that to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) and distribute them fairly, online giants should be treated as utilities.
Jefferson v Hamilton
This framing also helps to understand the reactions to centralisation more generally. The Jeffersonian side worries that a centralised internet offers less scope for innovation. Although the online giants themselves are a source of much invention, they dampen it elsewhere, so that fewer new ideas are being tried. Venture capitalists now talk about “kill zones”, areas they will not invest in because one of the big players may squeeze the life out of startups or buy them up at a low price.
The political consequences of the internet’s growing centralisation are even more troublesome, if less obvious. Walled gardens often limit free speech, as Facebook’s sometimes ham-fisted attempts to police its social network have shown. Having to hack the algorithms of only a few platforms makes it easier for Russian trolls and their Western counterparts to meddle in elections by spreading misinformation. The concentration of reams of personal data in one place makes serious leaks more likely. One example is the recent scandal at Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that acquired data on 87m Facebook users in underhand ways (and as a result went out of business). Dominant platforms are also handy for spooks, as shown by the revelations in 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked vast amounts of classified information. Intelligence services had to tap into only a couple of computing clouds to find what they wanted. And online giants have plenty of cash to influence offline politics.
Yet among Jeffersonians a sense of a new beginning is also in the air. The buzz at technology conferences today is reminiscent of 1995, shortly after the birth of the world wide web, when a new piece of software called a browser took the web mainstream, and the internet with it. At today’s events startups are pushing ambitious plans, often based on blockchain technology (immutable distributed ledgers of the sort that underlie Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies), promising to “re-decentralise” the online world.
Hamiltonians, on the other hand, argue that without the free services and easy-to-use interfaces offered by companies such as Google and Facebook, far fewer people would be using the internet. Without cloud computing, which lets firms crunch vast quantities of data, AI would be nowhere. Having a few powerful firms in control also helps curb the demons of decentralisation, such as cybercrime and hate speech. This kind of thinking, long used by online giants to make the case against regulation, has gained some traction on the left in the West. But it is mostly thriving in China, where the government wants tech titans to help it in its quest to turn the country into a cyber-superpower.
Tacking between the two sides is a growing group of academics who are trying to devise new ways to rein in big tech through regulation. Some of their proposals are more Jeffersonian, such as forcing firms to unwind recent mergers. Others are more Hamiltonian, including making companies share some of their data.
This special report will start by chronicling how the internet became centralised, then discuss all three strands in turn. While not hiding its sympathies with the Jeffersionan side, it will conclude that to re-decentralise the internet, ideas from all three camps are needed. There is no central solution.