/ internet

What would a good internet look like?

Listening to Tom Barbalet's Long Funk episode about net neutrality the question is put as to what a good version of the internet would look like.

I've been on the internet for almost as long as the web has existed. Except maybe for the first few months I don't think there has been any time at which I havn't had some form of independent internet presence. My own lifetime has conveniently spanned the rise of the web from it's initial "profdoctor" phase at CERN comprising of mostly academic profile pages to the sprawling leviathan it is now.

It seems comical by today's standards, but in the early 1990s when I was still a collector of computer magazines there was one which came with a poster of all the known public websites and their links. Such a poster wouldn't be possible now. It would be so dense with sites and links that they would be utterly indecipherable.

I agree that the internet has never been neutral. There have always been issues with censorship. At least since the mid 1990s the web was a quasi-public space (the "global village") riding on top of private companies, and that remains the case now. The private companies only ever cared about the bottom line. They didn't care about your right to free speech or democracy or anything fancy like that.

But unlike Tom's view I disagree that net neutrality is a purely bogus concept. For the internet history I've known in the last couple of decades access was treated in the same way as access to telephone services. You either had access to it or you didn't - like running water and electricity. Access could be slower or faster, but that was about it. Internet providers didn't care whether I talked Gopher or HTML or XMPP or IPFS. They also mostly didn't care which IP addresses I talked to. To them it was all just data going through the tubes. The legal terminology is common carrier status.

Big problems arise if the internet becomes significantly less neutral than it is now. If you want to know what that means then look no further than Facebook's FreeBasics. FreeBasics allows access to Facebook and a small number of whitelisted sites, but nothing else. It's internet, but of a deliberately restricted kind. Another scenario is that maybe your internet provider decides it only wants to talk HTTP and blocks everything else. And of course that's not hypothetical, since it already happens in some places. A future scenario could be that your internet provider takes a dislike to Mastodon. Maybe the fediverse isn't commercially exploitable enough, and so it just drops any traffic which looks like OStatus or ActivityPub.

A less neutral internet poses a possible existential threat to the parts of the internet which are actually worthwhile, and not just corporate hellscapes. Especially independent systems and websites.

Changing the internet

So what would the better internet look like? Here I'm thinking not so much about the software as the physical infrastructure, although software is obviously still a component of that.

  • Application of the relevant laws to force the breakup of telco monopolies and silo companies like Facebook and Twitter
  • ISPs to be preferably run as geographically local non-profit foundations or cooperatives, but note that this does not mean nationalization (state control of the internet)
  • Municipal internet, similar to Freifunk
  • Repeal of any laws which might restrict the deployment of independent internet infrastructure
  • More designated radio bandwidth for long distance wifi, without license requirements

The software side of things is easy, because I am almost entirely a creature of the independent internet anyway. A lot of mainstream technology journalists may be unaware of it, but many of the problems involved either have already been solved or are being actively worked on.

  • Federated systems based upon protocols like Zot, OStatus, ActivityPub, XMPP and SSB
  • Peer-to-peer systems like IPFS and Tox
  • Rethink whether browsers should be the universal software delivery platform
  • Encourage more people and organizations to run their own internet systems - the FreedomBox/Freedombone type of approach