The irony of a centralized internet

[This article is the result of penning down of some scattered observations and thoughts of the author. This doesn’t comprehensively capture his views on this subject.]

It could be said that the internet’s origin lies in what was called the Usenet. Anyone who wanted to use it could do so by simply running a server, connecting over dial-up to other computers and start sending/receiving messages. What made this model so great was that there was no authority who controlled any of this. Everyone was the master of their own connection to this network and could choose to join/leave when they wished to do so.

This article provides a succinct description of how the internet evolved through the years. I’m sure there are more comprehensive articles about that but the one I link to touches upon the most important ideas and issues. The idea of the internet was a brilliant one but before the dot-com bubble days, the internet wasn’t as easily accessible to everyone. Those were the days of the browser wars and the rise and fall of “software companies”. In that time, the internet started becoming more centralized. In a bid to make the internet accessible to all, people started looking for ways to make things easier to follow, easier to set up and use.

The way of improving accessibility that won out was to make things centralized. A centralized agency could easily make sure that things are co-ordinated better and provide easier access to services, to the layman. And that is exactly what happened. Google enabled us to use email and search the internet. Facebook connected us to each other. Twitter provided a medium for one-to-many communication. I am not contending the easy of use of any of these things, I’m just mentioning how these companies have way too much information about their users; information they have collected by becoming too central a part of the internet and of our lives. Do you search the internet or do you Google?

There is no lack of ideas and technologies being proposed and implemented that have the ability to take care of this issue. From crowd-based approaches to relying on the mathematics of cryptocurrencies, ideas have been floating around for some time about how to tackle the issue of the centralization of power over the internet in the hands of a handful of companies. But there is a different kind of centralization that exists, a centralization that is more difficult to remove for it deals with actual physical access to the internet itself.

India is a country a little over a billion strong, but most of its citizens don’t really have access to proper, continuous electricity much less the internet. This is not just the case with India but with most of the “developing countries”. Internet access is a dicey thing for most people. They rely on mechanisms like mobile data for their internet access. This isn’t the best alternative and could potentially lead to quite a few issues.

This particular blog post talks about why SMS shouldn’t be used for two-factor authentication. While on the surface that might seem completely unrelated to what I’ve been talking about, it actually touches upon the issue of the centralization of power. In this case, the power to allow or disrupt the flow of traffic over mobile data. We’re now well poised to take a slight detour and look at the implications of having a centralized internet from a more political point of view.

During the months of August-September 2015, the ‘Patidar’ community’s agitations demanding reservations were scaled up. They held demonstrations around the last week of August and things got a bit ugly. To control the spread of havoc and rumours, the state government put a blanket ban on internet services via mobile data (3G, 2G, etc.) and banned messaging services like Whatsapp and Facebook on broadband as well. This happened from August 26-31 and later on, on 19th September as well. It is this ban that I am interested in using a case study so to say.

I am not going to be contesting whether the ban should’ve been put or not, whether there was enough tension that without such a ban, things wouldn’t have returned to normal. The question is far more fundamental. Should the government have such powers? The blog post I mentioned explains how that centralization of power caused a lot of problems for things that were dependant on the assumption that mobiles and the connectivity it offers are something that a person owns. It is, of course, clear that that is not the case. Similarly, access to the internet is something that a person should be able to opt-in for, not a service that someone provides, and more importantly, can take away. It shouldn’t be in the hands of the anyone, to decide at any time, whether someone should be able to use the internet or not.

I have already mentioned some of the technological issues of having a centralized internet with a sole (or small collective) entity having the power to control access to it or stop it completely. Let’s move on to some political issues that come out of this.

The internet is one of the most powerful mediums of information exchange that humans have imagined, maybe ever. Just take a moment to imagine how one would communicate with someone without the internet. The quickest way you would have would be to call the person; a means that is more controlled than the internet. Telecommunications ministries exist ubiquitously, globally, with governments ensuring they control access. There is no getting a fully free mobile communications model in place; at least not easily. The internet, on the other hand, is much faster, much more robust and equally importantly could be made much more secure and private than other means of communication. Other than taking out the physical communications link, there is not a lot that can be done in terms of completely blocking it out. There will be ways to circumvent blocks and bans. Mechanisms and ideas already exist as to how to achieve that, and we saw during the Arab spring how the internet isn’t easily censored. A look at how Anonymous (and others groups) helped protestors circumvent the censorship placed on the internet in Tunisia and other similar struggles would be enough to show that the internet doesn’t easily succumb to powers that may be.

It also brings to light how important control over the internet is, for governments to have full authority over their states. Instead of Orwell’s “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” we can today more accurately comment that “Those who control the internet, control information and those who control information, control everything.” That is the power that information has in this age and the internet being the strongest mediums of communication will obviously face the harshest of assaults. It is upto us to ensure that the internet doesn’t end up being controlled by the “Ministry of Truth”.

The idea of the internet as a human right has been around for some time now. The thing that is quite often missed in this debate is the fact that there are many many central elements in this network that have too much authority over the traffic that flows. In more technical terms, there are too many cut vertices that could eliminate the connectivity to the internet of many components if they chose to. Irrespective of whether someone has legitimate reasons to do so, the internet works best in a opt-in kind of model where there is no central authority or bully on the block (government or corporate) who can disallow anyone from using it.

This will be possible only if everyone has access to the internet, access that isn’t controlled by a single entity. Governments or even companies like Google (Project Loon) and Facebook ( don’t qualify as trustworthy entities in this sense; actually, no one will ever qualify. It should belong to each and everyone, equally. That, is an idea that the internet could potentially realize, an idea that is inaccessible to other things. An idea that we ironically, we are moving farther and farther from.


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