Opinion: The End of the Open Internet?

In his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it (2008) Jonathan Zittrain feared the return of socalled closed systems. A closed system was a protected environment, like Apple’s iphone or the xbox. Inside the system you sacrificed functionality for easy of use, and the relative safety from bot nets and viruses, the great threats in 2008. Zittrain saw how the number of viruses and the level of organized crime online were spiraling out of control. This was before the debates about Edward Snowden, surveillance and fake news.

25-great-firewall-of-chinaWhile some of Zittrain’s book seems dated, his fears about the future of the open internet ring ever more true. Recently, countries like Britain and Norway have outlined plans for national firewalls, which, security services claim, allow them to protect their own citizens from organized crime, hacking and propaganda directed from countries like China, Russia and Iran. The downside of this new surveillance is that all our activities online, what we search for, what we think, what our sexual preferences are; everything is now within the reach of the state. Authoritarian regimes have used this exact strategy, but for other reasons. They saw the internet as such a threat that they sectioned off their little piece of it, either partially like China and Iran or completely like North Korea. But both democracies and authoritarian states needed to monitor opinion within their borders.

Private citizens have fought back against surveillance by using VPN, TOR or similar networks (I2P or freenet).  Some creative file sharers even set up their own alternative network using radio waves. It is all about being able to connect without becoming vulnarable at the same time.

Bulk downloading could be one solution.  If you downloaded a whole website, rather than selected parts of it, and then went offline, your activities on that site would remain hidden. Kiwix, the offline version of wikipedia, for instance, targets countries with poor internet connections or high levels of surveillance. As the storage capacity for hard drives increases, we may soon see home networks in which wikipedia and some other sites are available offline, and in which all contact with the outside internet is carefully protected by VPN and other masking techniques.

The internet will be layered, like an onion. At the center is your computer, outside that is your home network, outside that a regional network, then a national network. On the very shell of the onion, you would find the open net, where the threat level would be highest. Between each layer there will in the future be either a firewall, or some other invisible vetting mechanism, before you’re allowed to move on to the next level. A digital customs officer. While this virtual border guard for the moment remains  passive, there is every chance that it might evolve into a form of active censorship, blocking filesharing networks and other sites that have been labeled harmful.

In many ways this is the opposite of a cloud driven society. Cloud storage has proven unsafe. Your children’s snapchat images, your emails, your health records, they are all constantly exposed to hacking. In stead, information may be stored in a lower layer of the internet, the closer to you, the better. Only information that we do not care about should be pushed up into the international cloud.

In the early days of the internet there were hopes that the web would free the world. However, traditional power structures have started to reassert themselves in the virtual space. First through the domination of a few mega companies, and now through the introduction of national firewalls operated by the state.

Michael Wynn