The inevitable move toward an internet without operators

Today’s internet bears little resemblance to its creators’ imaginings. Instead of the dream of a completely decentralized world wide web, beyond the control of governments and business, most of the infrastructure is owned by operators determined to make as much money as possible by depriving it of its inherent neutrality and selling channels to the highest bidder, often in cahoots with governments intent on spying on traffic.

From a simple structure characterized by packet-switched data communication, we have built complex systems that monitor users, and require constant identification, and controls that would have made George Orwell blanch. Little wonder that many people have been calling for some time for the internet to be decentralized, to redefine communications without operators and governments. Using the routers we have in our homes, along with municipal WiFi and a wide range of devices and protocols, we have seen proposals based on the idea of building a genuinely decentralized web, beyond anybody’s control.

But the factor that has really made a difference is obviously mobility: at present, there are millions of people around the world carrying around a computer capable of advanced communication, and that can be used as the building block to build such a network. And in fact, we are beginning to see this on a viable scale in countries such as Iraq or Taiwan, as well as through initiatives by groups of people who want to avoid government surveillance or blocking, and are doing so by an application called FireChat, which allows them to connect their devices to each other, creating their own decentralized networks by using their devices as nodes in a mesh. The company behind this application is Open Garden, a runner up in the TechCrunch Disrupt held two years ago in New York, and that has attracted the attention of the media. Open Garden argues that limited bandwidth is a myth spread by the operators and that what we need to do is reinvent the world wide web using WiFi and our mobile devices.

The company has caught the attention of Xavier Niel, founder of France’s second-largest internet provider and the country’s third mobile operator, Free, and who has recently begun bidding to take over T-Mobile US, the fourth player in the United States, with more than 50 million customers. There has been a flurry of speculation about the potential of hooking T-Mobile with Open Garden’s app, which has already been downloaded five million times. Open Garden says that in heavily populated areas, only 7 percent of devices would need to be installed with the app to be able to provide internet access for all users without needing to be connected to an operator or a WiFi network, effectively putting the operators out of business.

But why would an operator commit business suicide by providing a service that is going to reduce its importance? Self-disruption as innovation, an attempt to capitalize on a phenomenon that, even if you don’t initiate it, is going to happen anyway, and that could leave you as one of the (presumably few) leading telecom companies in a post-operator world. A future that is still some way off, but the first signs of which can be seen on the distant horizon.

I have been writing about mesh networks since 2006 (links in Spanish), and if there is one thing that seems clear to me, it’s that increased power and the increasing omnipresence of smartphones will inevitably lead to the appearance of these kinds of networks, initially associated with moves to block censorship, blocking and other kinds of state control, but that will eventually become the norm. Controlling these kinds of networks is impossible, as has been shown by ISIS, which has used the decentralized Diaspora social network after Twitter closed down its assorted accounts in the wake of the beheading of James Foley last week.

And this of course has now become the nub of the issue: what will happen when the web is fully decentralized and easy to use, allowing the publication and dissemination of anything. The development of the deep web, with its huge network of nodes and dynamic sites that are only accessible through anonymity applications that most of us have little idea about how to use, illustrates a trend that cannot be avoided in the long run, and that we are going to have to get used to. For better or worse.

(En español, aquí)