The internet was meant to be open, free, and decentralized, but today it is controlled by a few companies with grave consequences for society and the economy. The internet has become the opposite of what it was intended to be.
In the early 1960s, Paul Baran was an engineer at the RAND Corporation when he began thinking about the need for a communications network that could withstand a nuclear strike. RAND was contracted by the Pentagon to create a system that could continue operating even if parts of it were destroyed by an atomic blast. It was supposed to be the ultimate decentralized system.
Baran went on to publish a paper in 1964 titled “On Distributed Communications,” which was influential in establishing the concepts behind the architecture of the internet.
Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn put these concepts into practice at the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1960s, and created the communication methods that make the internet possible. The principles of freedom and openness were at the heart of the design—packet switching made the system robust in the face of nuclear attacks and Internet Protocol allowed for open interconnection.
Years later, Cerf said, “The beauty of the internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group.” In his view, “this model has not only made the internet very open—a testbed for innovation by anyone, anywhere—it’s also prevented vested interests from taking control.”
The principle of decentralization went directly against the business models of technology giants like AT&T and IBM. Until AT&T’s monopoly was broken up in the early 1980s, communications were extremely centralized and traveled through dedicated, point-to-point channels. The use of third-party devices on the network was prohibited.
The internet would have remained an obscure channel for government and scientists to communicate had it not been for Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s, he created a way for information to be shared easily using hypertext via the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee could have become fabulously wealthy, but instead he released the source code for free, embodying the democratic spirit of the internet. Berners-Lee wanted “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”
In recent years, the great hope of an open and free internet has given way to a dystopia where a few big companies control what we see, how we communicate, and what we can say online.
Today, Berners-Lee thinks the internet is broken. In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, he recalled its early days. “The spirit there was very decentralized,” Berners-Lee said. “The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission. That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”
Berners-Lee is taking a break from his work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch Inrupt, a startup that he has been working on for the past nine months. His mission is to decentralize the internet, reclaim power from tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and allow individuals to control their own data.
Although the architecture of the internet is still decentralized, the ecosystem of the World Wide Web is not. A few giant companies have near-monopolistic control of traffic, personal data, commerce, and the flow of information.
If you had to choose a date for when the internet died, it would be in the year 2014. Before then, traffic to websites came from many sources, and the web was a lively ecosystem. But beginning in 2014, more than half of all traffic began coming from just two sources: Facebook and Google. Today, over 70 percent of traffic is dominated by those two platforms….