Why the world needs a new internet

By Kartikey Sharma   @11kartikey |
 2017-11-29 19:13:45

The internet has transformed from a source of free flow of information to a network controlled by corporate moguls.

The internet has become its own enemy, dampening the very self-expressive aspect it was meant to endorse.

In their path-breaking attempt to explain the workings of the internet, Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith in Who Controls The Internet narrate fascinating stories of the web's challenge to government rule in the 1990s, and its ensuing battle with global politic.

A lot has changed since the book first came out in 2006. Social media is the formidable king of content and serves as a platform for everyone to champion their opinions and perspectives for the world to hear.

But the internet has become its own enemy, an evolving threat which is beginning to dampen the self-expressive aspect it was meant to endorse in the first place.

Yahoo under former CEO Jerry Yang was among the first to sign a Public Pledge on Self Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry. Photo: Reuters

To explain this phenomenon, let's take a trip back to 1999, when the Silicon Valley phenomenon, Yahoo, was the internet's pride and joy. The company wanted to spread its horizons into the communist People's Republic of China. However, Yahoo's attempt to bestow the power of web upon the lives of the Chinese was disrupted by political humdrum and that nation's love for anti-dissidence, which they thought the company brought with itself.

As a condition of market access, the government demanded Yahoo to filter out information that could be destructive to the Communist Party's image. We are yet to find out if the now dismantled company searched its libertarian soul before signing a document called Public Pledge on Self Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry.

Under this, Yahoo vowed to put a leash on websites that were disruptive for the "users". One such instance was put on display in 2005, when Chinese journalist Shi Tao sent a disrupting "anti-national" email to a democratic website in the United States, only to be betrayed by his Yahoo email ID. He was thrown in prison for 10 years, but was released in 2013.

The story perhaps flung former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang into a gigantic fishpond, where he was labelled anti-everything, but in a very Bond-like fashion, came out and announced "You've gotta do what you gotta do".

The tale remarkably puts into context the internet's transformation from a source of technology that resisted territorial law to a corporate mogul which now facilitates its enforcement.

Edward Snowden in his quest to liberate us from this malpractice confessed the internet's shallow war of authoritarian control with the supervised cooperation of governments across.

In truth, the internet is not decentralised anymore, only mediated by a handful of companies who mutilate it when they see fit. Sure, anyone can publish anything they want, but can anyone find it without the pleasing assistance of a Google?

Facebook and Google today have direct control over 70 per cent of web traffic. With the growing significance of mobile internet traffic, the two giants have engulfed over 70 per cent of the mobile traffic in Latin America alone. Facebook since 2014 has seen an increase of 45 per cent in its traffic flow, bypassing Google handsomely in that market.

To overturn this deficit, Google literally went into our stratosphere with its "loon balloons", to magnify its domain and augment the data stream coming through. With massive amounts of data at its disposal, it can now swiftly migrate from a search-based company to an AI-first company, in order to further personalise its game plan.

With power comes influence, and with influence comes the ability to facilitate and mould information. The internet's growing dominance now has media houses crying for help. Classified advertising, a leading source of their revenue, is now lost to internet companies. A beef with them now would mean no revenue at all.

Edward Snowden has confessed the internet’s shallow war of authoritarian control with the supervised cooperation of governments. Photo: Reuters

The recent net neutrality furore was over a move which, if it comes into being, will grant complete access to the digital handbook to a few telecommunication giants. In the United States, a handful of firms including Comcast, Charter and Verizon, control the market for internet access, and have the technical capability to block you from accessing particular sites or apps. In some countries, a single state-owned telco controls internet access completely.

The internet will last longer than the web will. The raging dominance of conglomerates such as Google, Facebook and Amazon will force the system to create an underlying infrastructure optimised only for the traffic of these few companies. It wouldn't consciously remain a 'network of networks', but a network of the Trinet (Facebook, Google and Amazon).

We forget how useful it is to remain anonymous and control what we admire, or how easy it is for an internet startup with its own independent servers to be performing at the same intensity as that of Google.

Mind you, it was this progressive ecosystem of the web that enabled the Mark Zuckerberg enterprise to become what it is now. The ensuing control of private corporations will allow them to embody the armor of internet gatekeeping, granting access only to whom they seem fit.

The internet has been a bold representation of freedom, the catalyst of the Arab Spring, the epitome of knowledge and consciousness. But now it seems we are caught in the matrix, having vivid conversations on a sell-out network sacrificing our freedom.

We may soon have to look for alternatives in order to establish control on a network whose primal basis of existence was peer-to-peer communication with no dependency on a single party.

Perhaps we should all follow the Japanese housing concept of raze, rebuild and repeat, where most of the houses are demolished after 30 years. Building a new internet every few decades, in order to abolish corporate hegemony and to empower the people, doesn't seem like a bad option.

Also read: Why I think rule of only one man prevails in Modi's India


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