Freedombone Blog

Freedom in the Cloud

The end of the Web?

Something seems to be going on with the web. It seems to be heading towards a kind of endgame. For practical purposes there are only two web browser engines which most people use and they're both directly or indirectly controlled by Google. As I write this Google is busying itself trying to prevent ad blockers from working and without ad blocking the experience of browsing the modern web is some combination of insecure, annoying and occasionally horrifying. Targeted ads are like an unwelcome stalker who follows you around.

At the same time W3C - an organization already having profound flaws - appears to be handing over the definition of the HTML standard to Google. Mozilla I regard as being a proxy for Google because it's where they get their money from, and Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and Google control WHATWG. Since Microsoft gave up making its own browser recently this really leaves Apple and Google as the new pilots of the HTML "living standard".

We can maybe see the future of the web in the form of what Google recently did with confidential emails in Gmail. If you're sending an email that way then it no longer gets transferred via the email protocol. Instead the email becomes merely a notification that something has happened on a Google server and you then have to log in to that server to read it. This is how open standards finally die, having been totally appropriated and subsumed under a superficial appearance of convenience and security theatricality.

A prediction is that in the early 2020s HTML is something delivered centrally by Google and optimized for ad delivery and metadata collection. There is a new era of utility computing in which Google data centers are the mainframes and the idea of personal computers being personal or decentralized is something quaint from the distant past. Unless Mozilla can really clean up their act I think they're heading towards a Netscape-like oblivion, although the codebase will live on and perhaps metamorphose into other things.

Now is a good time to reinvent the web and to revisit its most basic premises. Who should the web work for? Should it be just an ad delivery platform? Who should run the web and who should make the standards?

Government Internet

It has come to my attention that Jeremy Corbyn is now promoting the idea of a "British Digital Corporation". This mostly seems like a bad idea to me and I'm in favor if keeping the government out of my internets as far as is practically possible. Having a nationalized version of something like Facebook would be really bad for privacy, because when the government knows the contents of your private life then this doesn't usually go well. In the last century using far less sophisticated equipment governments used knowledge of people's private beliefs against them in terrible ways and it would not be a good idea to repeat that.

Also there's currently a lot of interest in regulating the internet, but I think we should be really cautious about this. Many privacy-centric people approve of the European GDPR, but regulation cuts both ways. One day it might be in your favor and the next it might not. We already know that governments tend to intensely dislike encryption and want to spy on their citizens as much as possible. After Snowden there was no rollback of government surveillance powers - quite the opposite.

If a hypothetical near future Corbyn government were to try to improve the condition of the internet with some sort of decentralization programme then what should it do?

The first thing is incredibly easy: fund free software development and have a policy that any software created or supplied for government use must be under a Free Software license. No more proprietary lock-in.

Instead of a "British Digital Corporation" make something like a "Free Technology Fund" and divert whatever money would have been spent on proprietary software or SaaS subscriptions into it.

Designate some of the radio spectrum to be used for public internet provision. A sort of "citizens band" but for internet data. That will enable long distance wifi on a band which doesn't require individual licenses.

Regulate the ISPs to supply municipal mesh networks to every city. Some percentage of any new infrastructure must be municipal mesh. Once a significant number of people start to realize how much public mesh networks chould change the communications landscape then I think there would be a big "aha moment" and a whole new phase of technology development.

Regulate in favor of encryption. That citizens have an inalienable right to communications privacy if that's what they wish to do. Make it illegal for the government to interfere with private digital communications (aka "equipment interference").

Regulate that internet routers supplied by ISPs must at a minimum be able to run some number of internet services. Things like an xmpp server or cloud server such as NextCloud. That's well within the capabilities of current technology and would greatly assist with decentralization of services.

Changes to the mesh

Prepping the post-Brexit apocalypse bunker with a "dig for victory" poster and a newspaper cutout of Theresa May on the wall for darts practice during electrical blackouts we also have the Freedombone mesh. The mesh system is a bootable USB version of Debian which can be used with laptops, and there's also an image which can be used with the Beaglebone Black to increase wifi network coverage. Even if the internet is unavailable the mesh network can carry on providing a local communications system.

Recently I've improved the internet functionality so that if you plug a mesh system into your internet router with an ethernet cable then it just automatically becomes a gateway for any other peers in the network. This avoids needing to do any manual network restarts and so makes things more convenient.

I've also removed the Patchwork SSB client because it was difficult to maintain the installation of that on a 32bit version of Debian. I'm still using 32bit images for the mesh, because if you're up against it then any old hardware could be requisitioned at short notice to build a mesh and there may still be old 32bit laptops stashed at the back of closets.