May 31, 2012

Saving the Internet, Ourselves, and the Future

Since its birth as the U.S. Department of Defense ARPANET research project, the Internet has faced various threats -- some technical, some in the policy realm, and some purely political.

Recently we've seen the SOPA and PIPA legislation. Make no mistake about it -- the Hollywood content giants have not given up on their desires to reshape the Internet in their own traditional images.

We now face CISPA and its cyber-scaremongering, with cyberwar profiteering threatening to undermine decades of privacy protection legislation.

Everything in the vast repertoire of mankind is finding its way onto the Net in various guises, from wonders sublime and beautiful, to horrors of the most crass and demeaning.

There are marvels of generosity, cooperation and good will to be found all over the Net.

But there is also blatant exploitation by those who see the Internet and its technologies merely as a "gold rush" to be exploited, the best interests of the community at large be damned -- organizations explicitly entrusted with the well-being of the Net sometimes joining the dark side in the enablement of obscene profits.

Our overall unwillingness -- especially as technologists -- to "play the game" the way the "big boys" play has allowed entities with less than admirable motives to gain sway over many aspects of the Net.

In the U.S., net neutrality and service quality have languished as a few dominant ISPs have reached their pinnacles through exploitation of original monopoly grants, cherry picking deployments of broadband, and outright lying to communities -- not to mention outright political chicanery to help kill off effective competition.

We have allowed relatively minor issues such as arguments about Web cookies to become political pawns, diverting us while governments plan and deploy vast schemes to control and censor the Internet, turning the Net from a tool that could greatly enhance individual rights, into a mechanism to muzzle and control.

Fear that efforts to find new, innovative ways to solve the Net's problems might not succeed, have resulted in a continuing panicked embrace of organizations and policies of demonstrated failures, creating ever broadening wedges between the wide variety of Internet stakeholders around the planet.

And now, as the United Nations (UN) and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) contemplate a horrific takeover of many aspects of the Internet [Vint Cerf Congressional Testimony {PDF}], we reap what we have sowed through our long complacency and unwillingness to use all tools at our disposal to fight for Internet freedoms.

We may yet still have time to turn the tide for many of these issues. But every day the odds loom larger against us, and the image of Don Quixote stabbing uselessly at windmills is increasingly difficult to banish from one's mind.

When I started working on the ARPANET decades ago, most of the other students at UCLA were confined to using keypunches and IBM punch cards.

I've watched as computational power that used to fill rooms has been vastly outstripped by a tiny box hanging on my belt, and even smaller devices still.

Communications capabilities hardly even dreamed of decades ago are now commonplace. Even the masters of classical science fiction mostly had a blind spot to coming technological magic like smartphones and other personal communications devices.

To see so much of what we have jointly created being put at risk today, for the sake of government suppression and the almighty dollar, is frankly nothing short of being quintessentially depressing.

I'm not one of those persons who had an organized "plan" for my life. I never intended to become deeply involved in technology policy issues as I am now, and I morphed into that role gradually from a more traditional code hacking environment.

In retrospect, I might well have been happier if I had stayed more completely in the software engineering realm. Conceptual "satisfaction" seems much easier to derive from deployed system metrics than from seemingly intractable public policy dilemmas.

And yet, one does what one can, and I've endeavored to be scrupulously honest in the process. Over the years my various attempts at commentary and analysis have at one time or another upset just about all points on the spectrum. Perhaps this means I've struck an appropriate balance in the long run. Perhaps it means I struck out entirely. All I've ever tried to do in these regards is call the issues as I see them, suggest where I thought matters were awry and how they might be improved, and let folks make their own judgments.

But as the saying goes, all that plus a dollar will buy you a cup of cheap coffee these days.

The future will look back on what we're doing now -- right now -- towards protecting Internet freedoms. They may peer back with gratitude for what we achieved, or they may curse us in our graves for opportunities lost.

That aspect of the future is still ultimately under our control, today.

I grew up along with the Internet, and I like to think helping it in my own small ways -- watching it evolve into the technology infrastructure and communications foundation of the world.

We are now at a moment, a crossroad in history and time, where the decisions we make about the Internet, and its importance to our lives and freedoms, will have lasting effects for many years, decades, or perhaps far longer.

Will the Internet be sucked completely into the pit of oppression, censorship, and greed, or will we have the moral fortitude to say, "No! Not to our Internet. Not to what we worked so long and hard to achieve in the name of freedom, humanity, and community."

Quixotic or not, the quest for the best possible Internet for everyone is an effort in which I've been honored to be engaged. To lose this battle, this war, is potentially to lose so much else that will matter to your children, and to their children, and potentially to many more generations yet to come.

It's about so much more than bits and bytes, disks and fiber, CPUs and JavaScript. The Internet is humanity. We are the Internet.

If we lose the Internet, we lose ourselves.

Take care, all. And thanks.


Posted by Lauren at May 31, 2012 05:29 PM | Permalink
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