Nobody ever reads the rules for the game of Monopoly, except when an argument breaks out. Of course, it’s fun to consolidate all the power in your hands and watch the other players bend to your will. But it’s just a game. In the real world, however, monopolies are considered a bad thing, and arguments about the rules of the game are raging.
Many fear monopolies because it puts too much power in the hands of a few people. When it suits them monopolies can fix prices, snuff out competition, manipulate customers and workers, influence government policy, and stifle innovation. It’s the reason over 120 countries have implemented legislation to curtail monopolies when they reach critical mass.
Today, the internet is well on its way to becoming monopolised by a handful of corporations such as Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, and Google as well as powerful infrastructure providers who own the networks and servers that the web runs on. In response, a growing number of individuals and organisations, who believe the internet should never have evolved into such a centralised ecosystem, are doing something about it. But to decide where we want to go with the internet, it is important to understand how things developed as they have.
How it all began
The precursor to the internet was conceived by the US Department of Defense in the 1960’s as a communications network (ARPANET) that could survive a nuclear strike through packetized data and self-recovering routing protocols. The underlying software protocol stack (TCP/IP- transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol) proved to be so robust that it was adopted by the academic world. In 1969, it morphed into a data network connecting four US university campuses; UC Los Angeles, Stanford, Utah and UC Santa Barbara. This was the humble beginnings of the internet.
Let’s go surfing now
As TCP/IP was a published open software protocol, anyone could join the club. And join they did. The first apps running on the internet were techy and clunky, which hampered mass adoption of the new technology. Exponential growth only began in 1990, when Timothy Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), a researcher at CERN, developed HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). It was easy for the non-tech savvy public to use, just point and click.
HTTP revolutionised the internet and became the most widely used application protocol running over TCP/IP. Basically, HTTP defines and controls how webpages connect to servers to request, receive and display information in the form of text, pictures, sound and video. It is what we now call “surfing”. HTTP was, in essence, the birth of the World Wide Web.
I want it all, and I want it now
Today, we all know about the instant gratification the internet gives us. All you need to do is ask and you will instantly receive a funny cat picture, a favorite song, photographs, animations, newspapers, movies, TV shows, anything and everything that can be digitised.
And we are officially addicted. From shopping and banking through to entertainment and relationships, we have eagerly transferred most of our daily activities to the web.
As of May 2018, over 1.5 billion internet servers exist hosting over 217 million unique website domains. Entire industry sectors have migrated to the web from news and information to travel, banking, retail, accommodation, and entertainment.
The first generation is now reaching adulthood with no memory of there ever being a world without the internet. And we are approaching 4 billion internet users out of total global population of 7.5 billion people, and that is only set to grow. All this has happened in a historical blink of an eye.
Be careful what you wish for
The official term for our relationship with the internet is “Client-Server”. It denotes a system in which a central server provides content to a number of networked “client” computers on-demand (i.e. your browser). The terminology is benign and conjures images of a digital restaurant where customers are served whatever they desire off a tasty menu by a friendly Server.
But to the network engineer, the relationship was originally termed “Master-Slave”, and the nature of control is clear. The Server has all the power; the ability to fulfill or deny a request, to determine the speed and quality of the response, whether the content is free or subject to a fee. More sinister still, the Server can modify, censor or block content depending on the identity or location of the client. This is precisely what is happening today in China, the country with the highest number of internet users (800+ million, or 60% of its total population).
The consolidation of power
Not too long ago, many companies and organisations had their own in-house webserver, which in the early days was often just an old PC in the corner running a free copy of Apache HTTP. But as things progressed, companies realised they could avoid the high-cost of hardware and maintaining network security and achieve greater scalability plus 24/7 support if they relied on an external service provider, or ISP, to host their webserver and storage.
At first it was just websites. However, over the past 10 years, companies have become increasingly dependent on external web hosting services as they migrated their business processes to the web (“The Cloud”). Business applications have now largely migrated to the web including CRM (i.e. SalesForce), ERP (i.e. Oracle, SAP), online shops (Amazon, Ali Express), employee productivity (MS Office, Google G-Suite), the Adobe Creative Cloud, and data storage. LOTS of storage.
The rise of the new monopolies
It was all so logical, practical and convenient. Companies and consumers became beguiled by the explosion of powerful, interactive web-based apps as well as the convenience of offloading the computing, storage and networking technicalities to someone else.
What started out as small server-farms at hundreds of local ISPs underwent waves of mergers. It has now consolidated into enormous data centers built to host thousands of servers capable of handling millions of transactions per second, or stream thousands of high-resolution movies to Netflix users around the world.
Today, the fabric of the internet, comprised of servers and networks, is controlled by colossal data center operators located in China, America, Europe and India. The most popular applications running on them are under the control of tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba. The internet has, in essence, been chopped up and its pieces acquired by the highest bidder.
The primary motivation for these large corporations are profit and control. Our freedom to use the internet as a fair, open and uncensored platform is protected by only a few large, unsteady democracies. In many parts of the world, no such protection exists. Power is consolidating in the hands of the few who have the ability to influence what we buy, what we watch, what we read, and who we elect to govern us. Our communications are now monitored and recorded, our online activities tracked for commercial and political purposes.
The Achilles heel of the internet has turned out to be it’s fundamental client/server architecture — its centralisation. With the power and content of the World Wide Web concentrated in a handful of locations and controlled by a few powerful corporations, the very soul of the internet has been sold.
The way forward; decentralisation
At Catalyst, our mission is to empower decentralisation within the internet. We want to create an ecosystem where apps, content and communications is dispersed throughout a network that cannot be owned or controlled by an individual entity. To this end, our new protocol can be deployed on simple end-user devices, or overlayed on existing TCP/IP-based infrastructure based on peer-to-peer hosting of resources across many nodes. And our network leverages blockchain technology to embed confidentiality into all communications and transactions.
In short, it is our goal to break down today’s internet monopolies and return the internet to its original core values; secure, permissionless, open for all and owned by no one. Find out more here.