We need a new net

Originally posted 25 March 2003 

While the governments of the world and the peoples of the world disagree about so much; while wars and other conflicts erupt so frequently; while the strong nations are unwilling to give up even a little of their power and wealth to help the weak and poor; while the industrial countries continue to despoil and destroy the natural world on which we all depend; then any attempt to build or maintain a global network free of boundaries and restraints is a dangerous diversion, a distraction from the real work of bringing the people of the world together, and a tool of Western domination not global equality.

While the nation state remains the primary focus of self-determination for groups of people; while the politics of the globe are largely determined by interactions between nation states, whether in consensus, committee or conflict; then the Internet should reflect the interests of those nation states and be subject to the rule of law and under the complete and entire control of the properly-constituted governments of each nation acting alone or in concert.

Neither a libertarian nor a corporate Internet is acceptable. We must ensure that the Net serves the whole world, and that its development is dominated not by the corporations or by the geeks but by the people.

And this can only be done if today’s Internet is replaced.

The way the Internet works today is fundamentally flawed. It must be changed – and radically so – if the Net is to survive and to fulfil its manifest destiny and become the communications infrastructure of the world, supporting a global economy, political system and culture.

This will not happen by chance. Throughout its history the Net has been driven forward by the visions of a few, supported by the activities of many others and funded by – over the years – the military, the universities, the venture capitalists and the small shareholders who funded the dotcom boom .

It is time for a new vision, and if one is not provided by those who care for and work with the Net then we will lose our ability to determine its future, and the values that underpin tomorrow’s Internet will have nothing in common with those that drove its growth.

The options open to us do not include doing nothing: the uncontrolled Internet cannot survive.

Pressure from commerce, from businesses that want to use the Net securely, from governments who want to control it more effectively and – whatever the cyberlibertarians may argue – from the vast majority of potential Internet users around the world, people more concerned with weather reports and family correspondence than breaking the rule of oppressive governments, mean that the Net must change. The questions to be answered are : in what direction? And under whose control?

My goal is twofold. First, to make it absolutely clear that change is coming and second, to argue for a particular, social democratic, European, approach to the development and regulation of the zoned Internet. However this is not just an argument for or about Europe: the future of Internet is a global issue and other countries, other political traditions, will have their own answers to the questions raised.

The Internet can be a force for political good – it can promote socialism and socialist values by making the management of the economy more effective, by facilitating the provision of public services where they are needed, by improving the efficiency of the allocation of resources and reducing the costs to the state of providing these resources and services.

It can improve the quality of our democracies by making government more accountable, giving the people an opportunity to engage with the legislators, making representatives better informed and enhancing the efficiency of the legislature and the executive.

It can help rural communities by enabling people in remote areas to find out about weather patterns, tidal flows, market prices for agricultural produce and more. It can bring people together over borders of race, religion or nationality, and promote peace and understanding.

But it can do these things only if it is engineered to do so.

A road system which bypasses low-income housing estates and serves only to connect the wealthy to their offices and private schools is not engineered to reduce inequality or promote social justice. A financial system which will not provide loans to those on low incomes or banking services in public housing estates is not engineered to support an inclusive society. And an Internet which relies on a high level of technical sophistication to be made secure or is unable to provide reliable and trustworthy services is similarly deficient and does not serve the real interest of the people.

Today’s Internet may be used by hundreds of millions of people to exchange email, surf Web pages, chat and shop, but its architecture and systems are there to serve the interests of the large companies that built and manage it, and those who provide software, services or shopping opportunities on top of the core network.

For the reasons why, we have to look at the academic/military Arpanet of the 1970’s, the research network that formed the core of the Internet when it was created on January 1st 1983.

The values that underpinned that network were those appropriate to the academy. Restrictions on the flow of information were seen as unnecessary and undesirable, and the ethic of the Net was one of openness, connectivity and sharing.

Like the native Americans who welcomed the first settlers from Europe and helped them survive their first winters in the harsh climate of North America, the Internet community was open and giving. Having been developed over many years, the Net became available to commercial users other than defence contractors or those working in collaboration with universities, in around 1990, and proved extremely hospitable to those with commercial intentions. And, again like the welcoming Native Americans, slaughtered in their millions, exploited, and thrown off their land, the original Net community has been abused, enslaved and finally massacred by the commercial users .

It was their own fault. For twenty years the Net has lacked boundaries and has been porous to data of all forms. It has been built on a technology which has no way of imposing boundaries or of building walls. It has been engineered, at first by chance and later deliberately, such that the tools which would allow boundaries to be asserted are ineffective and incapable of doing so, and the effort needed to remodel the network and make it secure and safe is too great to be countenanced.

As a result only blunt tools are available – firewalls with configurations so complex that they are not fully understood by anyone; poorly considered laws regulating the behaviour of Internet Service Providers – and these are incapable of supporting the rich regulatory systems which this important online arena demands if all are to work together and co-exist in harmony. There is no way of enforcing a social contract on today’s Internet, and as a result the strong – US companies, US values, US laws – have triumphed over the weak.

The Net has linked computers which will run whatever programs they are given, without any way of checking whether they are safe or even whether they were written by the people who claimed to have written them, making it impossible to control the spread of viruses and other malicious code.

The Net has allowed any individual to access online resources from any point on the network without the need for any identification or authorisation.

The Net has been deliberately engineered to make it as difficult as possible to restrict access between its constituent parts, so that the default behaviour is to be completely open and anyone who wishes to limit the availability of their computers to other users must install expensive and complex security features.

Despite its many shortcomings, we have built a great network on top of this technology, and many of us have come to love it and to rely on its openness, freedom, lack of boundaries, extensibility and flexibility.

But it should now be clear that the time has come to replace it.