Skip to content

The breakup of the Internet

23 May 2014

This is my editorial for the Summer 2014 issue of HardCopy magazine:

When we look back at the first few decades of the 21st century, in a couple of decades from now, what will be our take on the Internet? Like most people, I have always assumed that it will continue to grow, getting faster and more ubiquitous as technologies develop, and burgeoning with endpoints as the Internet of Things comes on line, but essentially the same as now. However recently I have begun wondering whether the view might be somewhat different: that instead we will look back with fondness at an era when the Internet blossomed, before falling apart, an inevitable victim of the machinations of governments and corporations.

The Internet was recently described by Vladimir Putin as a “CIA project”, and he does have a point. It did indeed originate in a US government funded project to link organisations involved in the Cold War and the Space Race. However those organisations included the Stanford Research Institute, the University of Utah, MIT and Harvard, where the students who went on to create many of the technologies we now take for granted were given unprecedented levels of funding to research almost anything they wanted.

Military communications moved to MILNET in 1983, and then in the late 1980s, once what remained had developed into something capable of handling the traffic, the process of “commercialising and privatising” began. What we now call the Internet was officially opened for “private and business use” in 1992, and the first websites appeared shortly after. Thanks to the original investment of US taxpayers’ money, and the relatively enlightened manner in which it was handed over to the private sector, we now have a network that spans the globe and has in general been driven by a desire to create a level and secure playing field for everyone.

However that network is now under threat. Snowden’s revelations reveal that not only the National Security Agency but intelligence agencies around the world have been ‘hacking the Internet’ with gay abandon, often with the cooperation of the companies that run it. As The Economist stated in its article ‘The Snowden effect’ (24 Jan 2014), “the big consequence … will be that countries and companies will erect borders of sorts in cyberspace.” Then there is the Federal Communication Commission which is looking to allow broadband companies to charge companies for higher speed connections, so creating a multi-tier Internet that gives priority to big business. And finally there’s the shadowy Trans-Pacific Partnership which has designs on our freedom of speech and right to privacy.

These are complex issues which makes it difficult to raise awareness, but unless we do, we won’t know what we stood to lose until it’s already gone.

No comments yet

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: