(De-)Centralization and the Internet
Decentralization....While the general concept has doubtless been around since the beginning of human civilization, the term itself didn’t come into prominence until it was applied to ideals of the French Revolution and later embraced by anti-state political activists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the 1980s, decentralization had become a mainstream concept and buzzword in politics and business, to various levels of success.
From the first days of ARPANET, when it consisted of four computers at four research universities, the United States Department of Defense had conceived of a computer network that could withstand disasters and unforeseen events, including war. If one part of the network went down, the rest could still function because communication relied on peer-to-peer interconnectivity rather than a single computer. In the early 1980s, the National Science Foundation started NSFNET, a project that would greatly expand ARPANET’s reach to universities and research institutes, deemphasizing the military aspects of ARPANET and providing a backbone that would lead to what we now think of as the Internet. After ARPANET and NSFNET were decommissioned, the door was opened for commercialization of the Internet and its resulting centralization. The early players in this were America Online (AOL), CompuServe, and Prodigy. Microsoft got in the game when they took the Mozilla technology and build Internet Explorer from it, offering the browser free of charge for anyone running a Windows OS on their PC. This upshot was Netscape—which had a competing Mozilla-based browser—went out of business and IE now became the dominant browser. Throughout the 1990s many more commercial companies would join in, from various internet service providers (ISPs) that would provide you with an internet connection to “dot-bomb” disasters like Pets.com to eventual juggernauts like Amazon.com and Google.
When the bubble burst in the early 2000s, some thought this would be end of the commercialized internet. Instead, it seemed to have the opposite effect as the resources of smaller companies began to be acquired by larger companies. Utilities started bundling internet with telephone and cable, something smaller ISPs were unable to provide, and so they couldn’t compete and went out of business, reducing people’s options for connecting. Major mainstream media companies saw that the internet was now competing with them for providing news content and joined in the game. Over time, these media giants would become even larger as they merged with each other and ISPs. (Comcast Corporation provides an interesting case-study here beginning from its full acquisition of AT&T Broadband in 2002.) Social media platforms joined in leading to what would be termed Web 2.0. A concept where user-generated content would be worth a mint to companies that analyzed all the data contained in that content. Cloud computing emerged. Instead of data being stored locally on users’ computers, centralized servers would handle all the data storage, transfers, and user services. Facebook and Google bought up various user-provided content platforms. Media companies continued to merge both in meatspace and cyberspace. And all these companies control what data users can see. While content might be user-generated, and users still retain most of the ownership rights to the content, the distribution is all controlled by the providers. And the providers can arbitrarily decide whether that content meets their standards, emphasis on arbitrarily. To many, it seems that they apply these standards unequally. And as Facebook revealed recently, the truth is for sale to the highest bidder, at least where political ads are concerned.
Granted, without these companies it would be far more difficult to distribute user-generated content to a wide-ranging audience. There just aren’t many options out there, although recently we seem to be seeing an increase in popularity of independent content platforms such as Medium.com and the platform on which you are currently reading this blog post, which is heartening. Especially since many of these companies aren’t involved in what is arguably the greatest problem with these centralized content providers: the collection and sale of user data. Sure, their platforms are free, but you’re still paying, probably even more than you realize. These services are provided at no cost to you because they make more from your data then it costs them to provide the service. However, you have virtually no say in how they use your data, and their security is frequently lax as it seems every couple of months there’s yet another massive data breach from some company that stores sensitive personal information. And consumer protection and privacy laws have failed to keep up with the pace of change in information distribution on the internet. Granted, when it seems many members of Congress don’t even understand the basics of how computers and the internet work, you can hardly expect them to be able to competently regulate and protect something as complicated as information technology. The situation is even worse for those who live in nations where internet usage is regularly monitored, controlled, and censored by the State itself.
And speaking of State control, in late 2017, we in the U.S. saw the repeal of net neutrality. Those in support of it say that it will result in more innovation in service and improvement in infrastructure. Maybe. I’m not going to get into the business aspects of the repeal and whether this will result in improvement. (Though, seeing as how there is nothing holding these ISPs feet to the fire in order for them to invest in improved services, I’m not going to bate my breath). The problem is that we have concentrated the control of information flow into a handful of large companies, and we’ve put nothing in place to protect the consumers with how that information is distributed. Net neutrality repeal has created an oligopoly of ISPs that ultimately control the information flow from ground zero.
The upshot of all this is what started out as an ideal of free information exchange has become what appears to be anything but that. Information is tightly controlled and centralized. Data breaches compromise millions of people’s personal info. Denial of Service attacks and similar can take down significant portions of the internet due to lack of redundancy. After all, redundancy costs money, and large companies don’t find the expense worth it. Because what incentive do they have? Users don’t have many options of service providers, whether that service is your connection itself or something higher level like accessing your bank account or your cloud information.
Fortunately, we’re beginning to see significant push back against centralization from both a content provider standpoint and a technology standpoint. Blockchain technologies facilitate peer-to-peer transactions that bypass the centralized players. There are a handful of companies that are creating decentralized cloud storage services. And there is growth in online content providers whose purposes hew closer to the Bulletin Board Services of old (with a modern user experience) rather than those of the current social networking landscape.