The myth around internet creation is that it was initially thought as a communication network that could withstand an atomic bomb. While there is some truth to the fact that packet networks were initially designed with that intent, recent events such as the shutdown of the internet in Egypt and Lybia seem to point to the frailty of the net infrastructure.
I would like to propose some basic principles to launch an effort to increase the resilience of the internet and help it grow beyond the current chokepoints that have been created for it.
The internet, in my view, is a combination of low-level infrastructures and protocols that allow us all to connect to each other. It is, above all, a set of agreements between all parties involved as to what is and isn’t acceptable across the board. Some may argue otherwise (Some see the net as the physical infrastructure that connect us; some see the net as only the web; some see it as only companies like Google, Facebook, etc… I don’t. I see it as all encompassing.)
The infrastructure of the internet, however, is one that is still largely held in private hands. I explored the subject at greater length last year but to make a long story short, access to the internet can be controlled in 3 areas: at the source (where the servers allowing for creating and sharing content are located), at the receiving end (where the computer or mobile device is receiving content) or in-between those two points (either using firewalls or shutting down the infrastructure altogether).
Repressive governments tend to work at all those points, often managing to block portions of the network through a variety of means. For example, China has been able to shut down sites located in China, block out sites located outside of China (through what is often referred to as the great firewall of China), and has fairly tight control of the telecom industry (the Red Army holds substantial shareholder stakes in anyone doing business in China, including the telcos), giving it almost full control on the end to end approach.
Activists have been moving sites outside of China and using a variety of tools (most notably, Tor) to bypass the great firewall of China but they will be left powerless if the Chinese government decides to unplug the network infrastructure.
At the end of the day, that infrastructure is currently the weakest point in the internet. The mess of wires and wireless services that sits between your access device and this site (or any other site) is what is making the internet a global network… and it is something that is largely outside the control of anyone but the richest and most powerful people, organizations, and governments. In the US, for example, it is mostly under the control of telephone and cable companies, which themselves are working in conjunction with local, state, and federal regulators.
A substantial part of the reason for that control by large operators is that building out and maintaining that infrastructure has been and still is a relatively expensive effort. Laying down and maintaining the cables and equipment used to distribute captioned pictures of cats or images from the latest revolt is something that has required investments in the billions, if not trillions of dollars globally. In developed countries, that infrastructure rebuilt happened mostly in the 1990s, one of the greatest benefits from the dotcom explosions as investments in the early internet startups helped subsidize one of the greatest buildouts in human history (in the US alone, I would consider the effort to be on par with the great pyramids).
However, we have now learned that wires are frail and the march of technology has fortunately allowed us to move to something that could help potentially move the infrastructure beyond its current state to a brand new world.
From cloud to atmosphere
With web 2.0, the idea of hosting content on remote servers shared by many and administered by few (Amazon, Google, etc..) has been commonly referred to as the cloud… and that analogy has been increasingly used to talk about the internet as an amorphous group, moving beyond the ground-based concepts of land lines and server farms to evoke something greater.
At the same time, devices, whether they are mobile phones, tablets, computers, or others, have increasingly moved away from using cables to connect to the internet, leveraging an alphabet soup of acronyms like EDGE, 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi to access the internet wirelessly. For the purpose of further discussion, I would like to know refer to wireless internet access as the atmosphere.
Today, that space is still under the control of large entities, due to a combination of outdated intellectual property concepts and foreceful lobbying by established players. However, many before me have argued for opening up the wireless spectrum further. By using the atmosphere nomenclature, I would argue that locking down of the wireless space is a form of pollution that can be routed around.
The atmosphere is everything that surrounds the cloud. It is the space between the devices that are used for creation and consumption of content.
No one should own the atmosphere: It surrounds us and we all contribute to its well-being and decay in an almost equal fashion.
The atmosphere is the infrastructure that makes the cloud possible.
It is a public internet (or a virtual common) where the internet public (or all of us) can interact.
… and the atmosphere needs all of us to work together to ensure that a single party cannot poison it.
A breath of Fresh Air
Today’s internet atmosphere can be seen as largely divided between control in the wireless space and control in the landline space… and where control exists, the potential to cut off the air supply is stronger.
Mobile phones and mobile devices accessing the internet over GSM, 3G, 4G, EDGE, CDMA, WCDMA and other acronym the telecom industry can throw at us are generally controlled by wireless telephone companies. This is why one can seldom take a device from one country to the next without being forced to either switch carrier or be faced with relatively expensive fees for “roaming”.
The alternative for this is usually seen as WiFi, which allows anyone to set up a wireless hotspot as long as the upstream provider (the one the WiFi hotspot is connected to) agrees to it. So while few cable and phone companies have objected to WiFi hotspots being connected by individuals to date, they could easily shut down access to the internet at those end points.
What we now need is an infrastructure that would route around those end points and create a mesh network between different hotspot that are not connected to each other.
Cues From Nature
The atmosphere is resilient and tends to self-correct. For example, if a toxic particle shows up in the atmosphere, other components of the atmosphere can deal with it. And while an area of the atmosphere can be damaged at a time, all the other areas can help repair it over time.
So if there is pollution in Bhopal India, the overall atmosphere eventually dissipates that pollution and the system is restored.
All this happens without anyone pulling a trigger, or without any major catalytic event. It’s the work of billions or trillions of particles all working in conjunction with each other to keep things going. It’s a pattern that repeats itself in nature time and again. Ants work together to repair their farms after it’s been flooded; bees work together to fend off attack by a hungry bear; the whole ecosystem works together to balance out preys and predators. It’s an evolutionary battle we can all take cues from.
And it is one that the internet needs to take its cues from. For the internet to survive in the long run, it needs a healthy atmosphere… and that’s where you come in.
As nature gives us cues about collective action to ensure the well being of all the group, even in the face of a threat against an individual, we must find a way to work collectively to ensure the well being of the net in future.
A global mesh
I believe that markets, by their own nature, can be one of the best route around censorship. My main reason for that belief is that every time a company closes a door in the marketplace, one of its competitors starts looking at keeping that door open as a competitive advantage.
So, in the wireless space, an uneasy peace has been struck between the operators where most of them agree to not shut down most of the internet, because it is in their best economic interest to do so.
As I’ve highlighted earlier, however, there are certain areas where the market does not help. For example, when a border is crossed, a device can lose its access to the net because the operator is not running services in that geographical area and therefore doesn’t care to establishing any kind of peering agreement with other companies in that country. Another extreme end of this is the current situation in several middle eastern countries, where dictators can go to the few operators of networks in their country and tell them to shut down or suffer the consequences.
So the only way around such issue is to distribute the control of the atmosphere as widely as possible: to create millions or billions of particles that allow all systems to breathe easily.
In other words, the way to route around any potential damage to the atmosphere is to create a set of protocols that will allow any device to talk to each other and agree to route traffic from and to each other when needed. In the next entry, I will introduce what I consider some of the basic principles to define such a set of protocols. I do not have all the technical solutions (but I expect that some my readers will be inspired to put the call to action and figure out the technical details) but I can provide a basic framework that people can build on.
As the true embodiment of Jefferson’s marketplace of exchange of ideas, the Internet has now become a tool to increase democracy, improve lives, and hopefully make earth a better place for all of us. As such, it has also become a threat to established orders, and many are fighting to shut portions of it or all of it down.
Whether it is censorship in China, lockout in Lybia, blocking wikileaks, or denial of service attacks, the atmosphere should be resilient enough to route around and to ensure that internet public still has access to the public internet… and it is incumbent upon us all to figure out how to ensure the internet atmosphere is not polluted by the fumes of censorship.
A special thank you goes out to Doc Searls and Kevin Werbach for helping me tighten up this piece.