I killed the Internet
I killed the internet.
It wasn’t something I had planned but it was the net result of my actions. And I’m going to explain how it happened.
There used to be a time when there were a lot of private networks. That time, in the days prior to the rise of the Internet, meant that if you wanted to talk to users of a particular online service, you had to have an account on that service. The different services were operating in their respective silos and had developed their own culture: some were more business focused (eg. CompuServe), others were more consumer focused (eg. AOL); Some were backed by large corporations (eg. Prodigy), others by new upstarts in the computer world (eg. eWorld). But none of them were really talking to each other.
Meanwhile, a different type of technology and approach was slowly building up. Born out of the cold-war fear that centralized communication could be destroyed if a nuclear bomb destroyed the servers that hosted the communication, Internet technology was built to create connection between different networks, allowing to travel from one network to the other without hitting a wall (hence the term inter net, which means between the networks). Along the way, though, it brought a different ethos: in order to participate in the network and have other networks carry traffic to and from you, you had to agree to do the same for all the other networks, with no discrimination as to where, when, and what the traffic that was running on the network was.
The internet first grew as a military project but the research was done by private companies in conjunction with educational institutions. As such, those groups started interconnecting in the late 1960s and engineers brought more and more technology on top of the network that made it more and more useful, moving from exchanging files to supporting email, discussion groups and eventually, the web.
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, he didn’t think of getting a patent for it but instead decided to share his invention of http, the web browser, the web server, and HTML (pretty incredible that he invented and presented all those parts in one package) with the rest of the internet community. Over the years, the community made improvements on it, improvements that they, in turn, would share with the rest of the internet. Those that decided to build proprietary models for their offerings were generally shunned and those ideas failed to gain traction.
The golden years
With a graphic layer on top of it known as the world wide web, the Internet started growing at an accelerating speed, forcing all the previous walled gardens to open up or die. Compuserve was among the first to do so, followed by AOL and Prodigy. AOL’s ease of use made it possible for millions of people to now access internet resources while the more technically difficult to use Compuserve interface left it behind (to eventually be acquired by AOL) and the late entry of Prodigy in the internet world left it open to get acquired by Yahoo, which eventually shuttered them.
The next two decades would turn the internet from a place only geeks hung out to the central communication framework we know today. In 1995, AT&T introduced a flat-rate online service called Worldnet, forcing every single internet service providers to convert to a model of unlimited access to the internet for a flat fee. The move was intended both as a differentiator and an attempt by AT&T to choke off its competitors because it already had a substantial infrastructure it could leverage and thus ensure it had lower costs when it came to carrying internet traffic than any other ISP.
Meanwhile, different services provided inexpensive infrastructure to host a website, allowing anyone with basic skills to create a domain name and offer their wares online. In this level playing field, money was never the object to get started and a site like TNL.net was given the same rights on the internet as large corporations like IBM, General Electrics, Exxon, or Microsoft.
So from 1995 on, the assumption of the internet has been that all internet resources were available to everyone for a single flat fee and that anyone who was willing to work hard could become a hit on the internet and build a successful business from there.
But such carefree idealistic days are seldom too far from being exploited by people who prefer the balance of power to shift in their direction. Innocently at first but with increasing frequency, some new silos started appearing.
At first, those silos seemed unthreatening because they were small and the rest of the internet was substantially larger than they were. But just as a small hole in a dam seems relatively irrelevant at first, the pressure started building up and eventually led to an increasing number of areas around the internet where traffic would flow one way only, coming in from the community but never leaving back. For example, on Facebook, the following became more common when trying to get to the web:
… or in other cases, Facebook has decided that it is better to interup a link to a news story with an attempt to get you to install an app that would keep you within their walled garden as is the case with a lot of “social reader” type apps:
Every time someone installs such an app, they now move any sharing they do of stories from that site to the private silo of Facebook. Here, you are given two options when you click on a link: you can either install the app and therefore become a party to slowly dismantling the web, or you can decide that you don’t want to read that story. Facebook has successfully made the idea of sharing link outside of Facebook a large enough inconvenience that it will ensure that traffic will grow for Facebook only.
But let’s not assume that this just a Facebook issue. For example, when I receive a LinkedIn message, I’m asked to click a link to “View/Reply to this message”. Why is that? The message is in my inbox, I can view its content fully there, and I can reply to it by hitting Reply in my mail client:
The value of that link is to LinkedIn, not to me as a user, as all the functionality I need is right there in my email client.
Or take Path, the new darling of the social media set. Path is a social network for mobile devices (think Facebook for your smartphone) and its site offer a login button (for more on why there’s no link to Path in this entry, see “Will you revive it?” below). But when you login, the Path universe is very limited. This is, I kid you not, the page I land in if I log in on their web interface:
No content there, beyond my setting. I can’t access content I created on my mobile device, or content other people created on theirs. I also cannot share the content I created on my mobile device from the web… and most people seem to be OK with this.
How I killed the Internet
When I first saw this a few months ago, I didn’t think about it much. I figured it was a feature of a beta that it didn’t have any of the content yet available online. And so I kept on using the service. But eventually, the inability to share over the web started grating at me as I realize that I was trapped in Path’s trunk. I stopped using the service.
But what I didn’t do is stop using a number of other apps running on my Android phone (the same would be true if I used an iPhone). Instead, I felt OK continuing with the use of an app for the Amazon Kindle, or one for the Amazon MP3 player, or one for Google Currents, or Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, etc… I felt OK with getting only little bits of the web packaged in small digestable experiences on my mobile. I didn’t ask those same sites to develop an open web version that would just run on a browser so I could choose which device I would use to access the content and not have to worry whether an app was available for the device.
I didn’t flinch when I had to reinstall those apps on another device when I switched device. And when I saw a device that didn’t support the app, I didn’t blame the app maker but I blamed the platform for failing to support the app maker. I opted for more fragmentation in what was available to everyone because I had to have the latest shiny toy instead of demanding that everyone do the hard thing and work together.
Whenever the web missed a feature, I didn’t look at a way to fix it to provide similar capabilities to what devices offered but I looked away and said let’s abandon the web and move to apps instead. I didn’t push for some more dialogue to figure out issues around latency, camera/accelerometer/microphone/WiFi/GPS/Bluetooth access. Instead, I did the easy thing and focused on developing for only one platform (or a limited set of platform) .
Whenever I bumped into a silo like Facebook, I may have grumbled but I didn’t leave. In fact, I pushed more content into it, not asking that it push content back out. I did that because that’s where the readers were, where I could get more users, etc…
When my smart phone provider decided to put a cap on how much bandwidth I could use on my unlimited plan, I didn’t leave because I had to be on a network where I could continue using my iPhone/iPad/Kindle/Whateverdevice. I grumbled on Twitter and may have done a tumblr post but I didn’t walk away.
When the politicians started talking about things like Net Neutrality or other weird acronyms like PIPA/SOPA/ACTA/etc I may have pushed back for that law but I didn’t make it clear that anything that attacks the Internet attacks the people and thus undermines democracy.
I think you may realize that I’m not alone in these behaviors and the truth is: I may have killed the internet… but so did you.
Will you revive it?
So how do we bring it back? How do we, sitting on the brink, help the internet continue growing as a place where anyone, no matter whether they are a large corporation or an individual, has equal chance to develop and build the next big thing on the internet?
Well, the way I look at it is that we fight back with the tools we have and the best tool we have is the Internet itself… and our wallets.
You want our money? Well, you will have to be open for it. You want to advertise to me? Great? Make your whole site a part of the internet and I will stop my adblocker from blocking your ads. I will even click on the ads if they point to open internet site but will block the ones going inside silos. You want to offer me a subscription to something? That’s fine but you can’t be indexed by search engines.
You want me to install an app? OK only if the functionality of the same app is available on the open Internet? And if it is a limitation of Internet technology, then make it clear to me and show me who I can complain to so it stops being a limitation.
You want me to share a link to your app or site? OK, but how can I share links from other sites or apps INTO your app? How do I make the traffic flow both ways (and can search engines or people not registered see at least some of the content I share?)
You’re a device maker? Jump in. But you must work with other device makers on ensuring that there is a standardized way for the web to access some of the new hardware you’re introducing.
You’re a telco and have a hard time covering the cost of bandwidth? Maybe we can help. Share ALL the data (anonymized, of course) about the traffic patterns of your users and some network geeks will be happy to work with you on finding ways to optimize things.
You run a search engine? Great. If you find out that some pages are siloed, just refuse to index the whole site. Work with your competitors to ensure that a blacklist is created, similar to the spammers’ blacklist. If a company doesn’t want to play on the internet, it doesn’t have to but it shouldn’t reap the benefit of being near the internet.
You want to write a law relating to some nefarious behavior on the Internet? OK but you must put it up on a public internet site and publicize it the minute the concept is discussed. Maybe you can have it as a Wiki so public participation can ensure the best dialogue.
You run a site on the open Internet? Well, first of all thanks. But remember that the tools we have is the Internet: Just don’t link to the public-facing pages of siloed sites. In fact, it might be best not to mention them but if you have to, make it hard to find them.
You’re just a user? Awesome. Just start demanding the internet remain open. You came out (or at least thought of doing so) when SOPA threatened the Internet. When your Telco decides to close things up, walk away from it and to a provider that promises to remain open. When politicians try to abuse the Internet, call them on it. And when a provider tries to lock you up, walk away. You can do it again and again. The fight is going to be a long one but it’s well worth it.
Don’t do it for me. Don’t even do it just for freedom. Don’t do it because the previous generation of Internet users fought hard to make this work.
Do it because the Internet is awesome.
Do it for the next generation.
Do it for your friends.
Do it for yourself.
Do it for the kittens:
Originally published on March 3, 2012 in Politics, Technology . You may find related thoughts pieces under the following terms: AT&T, Access, Android, Apple, Culture, Facebook, Google, Internet technology, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Network neutrality, Open, Smartphone, amazon, app maker, democracy, device maker, internet community, kindle, mobile devices, net neutrality, open internet, open web version, path, silo, silo of Facebook, society, web, web interface