Shifting Power on the Internet

Privacy overruns, corporate walls and mass surveillance are not the future of our Internet. Here’s how we can change it

Think back to the days of yore if you can, all the way back to the year 1996. Google Glass was only the realm of science fiction. Apple was still twiddling with the Newton. America Online was a household name. And we were free.

Don’t worry — this is not a siren song to return to the old days of the Internet. There were plenty of things about the old Internet that few people pine for. After all, nobody in their right mind would miss waiting for their dad to get off the phone so they could dial in to AOL. But the old Internet we can cherish, and should be inspired by today, is the old decentralized Internet. Before the days when everyone and their mother had addresses, and people still used that 2MB of web space offered to them by their ISP. Back then, data was much more widely distributed than it is today, with no “single point of failure” that data on millions of people could be siphoned out of.

The fact is that the unprecedented scandal we face today was one of our own making. The NSA’s reach into the networks of the world would not have been possible without the massive growth in Internet consolidation and the vertically-oriented power structures that made it. Through this process of corporate Balkanization, the ethereal mass of the Internet was clearly mapped and demarcated. Its wild nature was tamed, its traffic consolidated and its data yoked to till the money fields like oxen. Brands are built by the size of their user bases, after all, and creating competition and division in an ideally free Internet is the best way to build such massive growth. This division and the accompanying mass centralization of data online have brought about the recent debacle. And we encouraged it — out of convenience.

Perhaps Bruce Schneier said it best in his recent article concerning the Web’s power structures. The Internet today is a feudal space, made up of groups of users that give their rights and privacy away to unaccountable corporations, in return for ease-of-use, shiny interfaces, and security in the massive maelstrom of the Web. His comparison to feudalism evokes much more than just a pretty picture — the state of the Internet today is a matter of power relations, which stands in marked contrast to the supposedly “open” and “egalitarian” properties of the Internet. How can we, as individuals, ever hope to reverse such a hopeless trend?

The answer lies in another idea that Schneier referenced, the idea of a distributed and decentralized power. The Internet itself is technically a decentralized network, with different servers and clients communicating with each other across the world. Data is hosted in diverse locations and on many thousands of different servers and components. Keeping these servers in closer relation with each other (centralization) can have many potential benefits. But new developments in technology and the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections are making the improvements offered by centralization less effective. The fact is, decentralization of the Internet is one of the only ways that ubiquitous spying can be made so costly and challenging to the overlords that it is nearly impossible. Couple this with powerful and properly-implemented encryption, and we have our best chance yet at resisting the fate they’ve drawn out for us.

The dichotomy that most people reference when confronted with the idea of decentralization is striking. Services that you host yourself, on your own hardware or in your own space — where you can control them — get a bad rap. Either we consent to the machinations of Google, Facebook and the other corporate machines, or we will lose every convenience we have grown to love and depend on over the past decade. Staying in touch with our friends on social networks. Keeping track of our appointments and contacts on all of our devices. It simply isn’t possible to easily keep the comforts we rely on and still retain our privacy. Other threats will also work their way into the mix. “It’s impossible to keep your data secure if we aren’t the ones hosting it,” according to the large platform services. Even though they have presided over perhaps the greatest lapse in security that the Internet has ever known. “Self-hosting is impossible: too difficult, too complex, almost requires a University degree.” Merely a couple decades ago, the same thing could be said about using any desktop computer at all.

This is a false dichotomy — we can have the best of both worlds. We can retain our privacy rights while still obtaining a first-class user experience, one that doesn’t require a rocket scientist to navigate. We can say no to ubiquitous and warrantless government surveillance without having to give up living on the cutting edge of technology. And we can deny the trackers, the cookies, the mass marketing everywhere on the web that is only concerned with selling us the latest garbage. This is where the battle lines of the Internet rest today — in developing technology that brings the best of encryption, decentralized networking and design together. Technologies like the one I work on, arkOS, that allow you to host your data under your control with an easy to use interface, just as easy as using the “app stores” that we are all familiar with nowadays. When the experience of a privacy-respectful solution can compete with that of the large, centralized platform services, the decision for users becomes an easy one.

This is where the future of our Internet lies. We can’t only get here with technical solutions; it must also be matched with unprecedented political pressure and a will to act. But it is up to all of us to fight for this future, to shift the balance of power back and to use technologies that help decentralize the web. The freedom to live, to write and to create online depends on it.

(My project arkOS is currently running a funding campaign to push forward its vision for a decentralized Internet. If you liked this article, maybe you would like the project and would consider donating. Thank you so much for your support.)