The Future of the Internet

Yesterday I wrote an email to a friend (using Gmail), and in it mentioned by name a hotel in Zihuatanejo, Mexico where my wife and I had stayed years ago.  The hotel’s name wasn’t in the subject line; it was deep in the text of a rather lengthy email.  That afternoon, while doing some online research on a magazine website, there appeared a banner ad for that same hotel.  A bit later, I received an email (via Facebook) from one of the employees of that hotel, asking when we would be returning.  Obviously none of this was coincidence: Google (or rather an algorithm created by Google) is reading my email, word for word, and selling information contained in it to third parties.

Despite the portrayal of the Internet as an agent of democratization and positive disruptive change (an image propagated mainly by self-aggrandizing entrepreneurs), it looks increasingly like a tool of vested commercial interests and governments, and we as users look increasingly like a bunch of sheep on our way to a fleecing (or worse).  Market power is excessively concentrated in a few big corporate players who preemptively acquire every potential competitor, privacy is considered passé, data security is under constant siege (as the recent “Heartbleed” flaw makes clear), and the pervasive vacuity of social media — not to mention their susceptibility to manipulation and mob rule (witness Turkey turning Twitter off and on like a faucet, or the crowd-sourced kneecapping of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich) – requires no further comment.  Simply put, the Internet as we know it is an odd sort of technological monopoly that itself is begging for creative disruption.

Let’s remember what “the Internet” is: a network of computer networks that began as a way for academics (mostly geeks at Stanford University) to communicate with each other and, not incidentally, with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funded the development of the hardware “backbone” of the nascent Internet. Starting in the ’80s, private enterprise became increasingly involved in the expansion and integration of this backbone. Add hypertext (Stanford again), browsers and search engines, and you have the World Wide Web, which is what we used to call the largely commercially-driven Internet of today.

Today’s Internet is a reincarnation of broadcast TV of the 1960s: an artificial monopoly producing “content” that is ostensibly offered for free, but is designed either to sell merchandise directly or to attract paid advertising.  In the Sixties no one imagined paying money to receive TV on particular topics over a wire strung to your house, or from outer space via a satellite.  It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that smart money soon will turn to providing similarly diverse methods of computer networking — and not just new websites — to consumers.

The technical core of the Internet – and what makes it a de facto monopoly today — is not one operating system or brand of hardware, and certainly not the domain name address system run by ICANN, whose governance has recently been the subject of some hyperventilated editorials, but the TCP/IP data communication protocol – a set of arbitrary lines of computer code that define a network’s architecture and act as a universal data traffic cop.

The TCP/IP protocol suite was developed by DARPA but later (in the 1990s) handed off to an international, non-governmental supervisory organization called the Internet Engineering Task Force. Adoption of the TCP/IP protocol as the foundation for what we now know as the Internet is pretty much a historical fluke.  There were and are other such protocols out there, based on different networking priorities. Google is working on one designed to enhance transmission speeds, naturally called SPDY. The use of hypertext (without which we’d all be online illiterates) isn’t dependent on a particular network protocol, just as there is more than one method of transmitting electricity through copper wires.

For the vast majority of us, the Internet has three primary functions: personal communication, which we desire to be truly private; shopping, which we desire to be truly secure; and research, which we desire to be accurate. Could these functions, among others, be delivered via a non-TCP/IP-based network, or via a range of alternative protocols, which might afford privacy, resistance to data trolling and targeted ads, truly secure data encryption, carefully curated content, or other desirable qualities currently missing from the Web, or which might simply be unique to a small, self-selected group of users?

Such “counter-internets” could be the future of the Internet. There might one day be as many Internets as there are channels on cable TV, each with a special purpose, user population, and attribute profile, and the capacity to circumvent the geopolitical and commercial balkanization that threatens the current model. However its future develops for better or worse, the monolithic Internet that we have today may not be as permanent as it looks.

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