It's not the Internet anymore
It's important that we remember what makes the Internet so interesting and unique. There are two crucial characteristics:
- It's fundamentally decentralized, meaning you can cut out any part without affecting the rest,
- It allows freedom of access, meaning you have the same ability to access and write it as anyone else.
Because they permit extraordinary flexibility and rapid growth, both of these characteristics have brought the Internet way beyond any other network. Today, they are endangered. How come, and what can we do about it?
Ones and zeros are boring
Traditionally the cost involved with "Internet", for the end-user, was access. It was measured in kB/s and hours per month â€“ the idea was that you paid a company to transport data (ones and zeros) from and to your computer.
Progressively though, all of these companies out there have understood that there is not much money to be made simply transferring data. Carrying ones and zeroes is mostly a matter of managing hardware, a domain where competition is tough and standing out is hard.
Providing content, however, is much more interesting and lucrative. Because there is some consumer decision involved, there is branding to be made - and therefore, room for differentiation and high profit margins. VoilÃ ! Suddenly my Internet Access Provider becomes Internet Services Provider (ISP). Regular and mobile phone access, digital TV or pay-per-view movies, nation-wide wireless subscription, mobile phone ringtones, portable music player with legal music downloads... There is no media that they are not into, providing access, and, especially, content.
Controlling both sides of the cables
To keep control of the content, the key idea is to be at both ends of the cables. The result is currently sitting in my living-room. It's a box that replaces what was formerly merely a modem; now a sleek device, it stays on permanently and can manage ethernet, wi-fi, phone and TV.
It's also the reason my mobile phone only surfs "selected" websites, or why iPods won't allow to exporting music.
What happens inside these boxes? How do the operating systems inside manage the data I am sending through them? There is no way to know. Because we have no freedom over that software, we have no knowledge nor real control over it. Combine this with our ever increasing use of on-line services (something I have called the disappearance of the operating system), and you have created a network that is different depending on who you access it with.
Of course, if the information you can find and read depends on your access provider, there are chances that your thinking and writing also depends on them.
Do we want the Internet, or just some networking?
So all of this concurs to creating something that's not the Internet. Remember the two key characteristics above? When we ask ourselves whether a particular service contributes or detriments to the Internet, we have to answer two questions:
1. Does it create a closed private network?
Facebook, Linkedin and their peers aren't part of the Internet. Anything you do inside stays inside. If you cannot take your information home, then you shouldn't give somebody the legal and technical means to manage it â€“ be it at zero price or for a fee.
Yahoo! Messenger, Skype and their siblings aren't part of the Internet. When you use a black-box program to chat, which connects to a black-box server, which only accepts people with a registered account within that black-box world, you are part of a closed, private network.
The incentive for a company to close up its network is great, because it binds users to their products. This isn't mandatory for them to generate revenue, however. For example, Facebook earns money by re-selling demographic consumer information (ex: how many campus students under 20 have watched this or that movie) and displaying targeted advertising. There is nothing wrong in that, if the users are free to leave.
But these private networks stay under the control of the entity that owns them. Only they can decide and influence their growth and evolution.
2. Does it create a non-removable block?
Imagine one single computer that would be necessary for the web to work. Imagine every single user in the world systematically turning to this unique giant directory, in order to access anything in the network. Imagine every creator/participant in the network having to register in the directory to exist inside the network.
Imagine that computer rating every page of the network with a 10-point grade. Imagine the company behind that computer earning its revenue from the lowest-rated pages. And imagine the grade-attribution algorithm being entirely secret.
You've got it! It's Google, of course.
As strange as it might sound, Google is certainly into networking â€“ but it's not helping the Internet. There isn't an influential website which can afford not feeding Google with its content. There isn't a low-ranking commercial website that can afford not buying their advertising. Simply because we users have consecrated it as our do-everything Internet service.
Crumb: a hint of an answer
We can change the course of things. The two keys to success are open protocols and a decentralized system.
Vision: Instead of signing up into different services and logging in into different private networks, Joe user has all of his social Internet uses met by one application, Loaf. He can do either of the following:
1. Run a limited version of Loaf at no cost, through various Internet companies, similar to today's blog providers.
2. Run the full application with a web host of his choice (at the cost of a hosting fee).
Loaf is free software, and is based on an open set of protocols called Crumb (for the sake of finding a modest name). Anyone can develop/adapt an application to read a Crumb profile.
A decentralized social network
The key idea is to create a social network that does not rely on a private server. Joe creates his Crumb profile through Loaf, and interacts with other users who also have a Crumb profile. Any of them can host their profile where they choose â€“ it is the working principle of the Jabber instant messaging, applied to social networking as a whole. Here are a few aspects:
An ID and a buddy list â€” The focus should be on private communication, regulated with identification similar to that of Jabber. Joe lets Janet access his profile by adding her Crumb ID (firstname.lastname@example.org) in his buddy list.
Text and picture sharing â€” The core of the exchange will of course be text, in the form of blog-like entries, and picture sharing, with a system of comments. From basic functionality, we can later evolve into more advanced, Facebook-like interaction.
IM integration â€” Thanks to the maturity of Jabber/XMPP, it should not be difficult to integrate a Jabber account into the Crumb profile, and an XMPP server into Loaf. Instant messaging could be done directly on-line through the Loaf interface, or more traditionally with a PC client.
Room for plenty more â€” Once the features above are working, a set of plug-ins could be developed for Loaf. Some ideas include a full webmail, private file exchange (ex. allowing arbitrary people to access one large file), public blog, and streaming video hosting. In the long term, Loaf could evolve into a complete personal work and leisure space, provided by companies like Facebook, but which would give users the possibility to leave with their data at any time and host their profile elsewhere.
And does it all matter in the end?
Yes it does. More and more of our computing is networked, and the day might come when the only software used on your personal computers is a set of hardware drivers. The core of our activities and information will stay online â€” it's now up to us to decide whether this will be inside a few competing, closed private networks, or within a mesh with no center nor owner, otherwise known as the Internet.
It's not that difficult. The majority of what we need is here: RSS for dynamic content, XHTML for text, PHP-capable hosting, XMPP for instant messaging, high quality blogging software. We're only lacking a single, attractive platform to compete with the Facebooks out there. Perhaps Crumb exists already somewhere; if so, it's time we heard more about it. So everyone can contribute to the Internet again.
This article is licensed under CC-BY-SA terms.
Olivier Cleynen (personal page) is co-founder of the GNU/Linux Matters non-profit, focused on international Internet advocacy for free software.