Concerns about the end of the best platform for expression and information have circulated since its beginning. The Internet follows a cycle of having problems and challenges met with solutions and patches to the holes in the boat almost everyday. In some cases, a government issues a proposal or mandate that would cripple the integrity of the net in a region, such as surveillance or data retention, or in its own function, regulating or banning encryption or certain protocols. In others, communities where free speech and the free exchange of information was once at the core of its principles cripples and corrupts itself for different motives. These issues are real and need battles waged over them — and when they are, it is guaranteed that someone in the crowd will claim that the internet is done for, and we might as well accept certain defeat. But approaching this claim in a basic and not merely idealistic way shows that, like everything else, a problem cannot exist without a solution, or a return to basics at which we can rebuild.
Starting from the bottom-up, the Internet as we know it is composed of hundreds of protocols and instructions for how information is spelled out in binary and source code and moves from one device, to browser or client, to the other. Such protocols include HTTP/HTTPS, SSH and BitTorrent. Each of these serve one specific purpose, but having many working in an ecosystem of computers around the world and beyond is what makes up the net. Its that simple when you lay it out.
The question now is what happens when such protocols become insecure, can be easily compromised or are outdated and a replacement becomes necessary.
Plain, unencrypted HTTP took a backseat in the department of serving webpages when a secure, encrypted variant (HTTPS) was finalized in the year 2000, originally created by NetScape in 1994 when man-in-the-middle attacks became a serious concern. The same for plain text emailing and STARTTLS for IMAP. Situations like these when they arise present the notion that the Internet is too chaotic and unstable to be a realistic medium of communication, and that it will be that way forever. But as fast as information travels and new things are made, so are patches, updates and methods of working around the problem and continuing on a path. This is only the surface of the continuous cycle of problem leading to solution.
Following fixing technical vulnerabilities is what happens within that which protocols enable. Initially it was Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems that served for discussion, but now in late 2015 we are at the height of information decentralization with things like Twitter and WordPress. Where anyone at anytime can become an alternative press outlet or share an idea that could become something larger. The system is put to the test when one of a few things happens: (1) the community or publisher is censored, either by the service moderators, or by the speech regulations of a government, (2) the community or publisher is hijacked by either insiders with certain interests in mind, or infiltrated by outsiders possibly sent by a government. The first situation is all too common when you allow unfettered free expression in something like the Internet, be it the shadowbanning controversy of Reddit in July 2015 (by service moderators) or the atrocious internet freedom ranking of China (by government speech regulation). Secondly, we have instances where new management alters the original state of affairs of a group and their content for nefarious purposes, namely, for example, the concerns which arose from the GamerGate controversy about ethical gaming journalism, and the co-opting of Occupy Wall Street and their message (which some believe wall street officials and the US government arranged). Naturally, what follows is speculation that free speech at large is under siege and that the values of the Internet are fastly coming to an end when headlines come in about Turkey blocking wordpress.com or secular bloggers in Bangladesh being murdered. The same in regard to hijacking communities fits similar criteria.
So when we’re presented with these problems, what do we do? If you’re sharing an opinion on a forum, about the forum that the moderators won’t like, and there is evidence that they deleted the post and the comments, the options to abandon the forum and join or create a better one, raise awareness about the censorship taking place in the hope to make corrections, and/or gather people to abandon the forum as a sort of boycott are right in front of you. When we’re dealing with a government blocking access to websites or targeting certain content, the common solution to go around a great firewall is the TOR network, a proxy network or a distributed P2P network for accessing the Internet from outside the location that content is being blocked. When you have reason to conclude that an entity has taken over the community you speak frequently on and caused great harm, you are most reasonably inclined to follow the steps taken with censorship by a service moderator: move elsewhere, attempt to amend the community or boycott it.
I’m sure these things are obvious to most people, as it resembles common sense: If something isn’t working, use something else or make something new. But the reason I lay these out is that people have a habit of thinking the Internet will suddenly die in its total (unlimited) scope when problems arise. Similar to religious fanatics that claim a foreign conflict signals the end times. The point is that these things have always happened, not only with the Internet but with all forms of media, from print, to music, to television. Its a matter of expression and information itself rather than what the medium is. How the Internet differs is its broad accessibility and limitless possibilities, meaning that everything beneficial and harmful to what we value most about the Internet is always happening, the question becomes how much hysteria will build over this equilibrium to form a claim of the Internet on life-support.
The underlying implication I’m making with these cases is that all these occur around a concept, and they’re not simply direct attacks or effects on a centralized body of things. You can attack plain HTTP, crack email, throttle BitTorrent traffic, censor bloggers and infiltrate communities, but the Internet is still a functioning thing if there is still electricity and the possibility to connect one computer to another. You still have the possibility to send something, somehow to one computer, back again, and find either a solution to the problem or an alternative where you can pick up again when you’re facing problems. Hacktivists, programmers and internet freedom watchdogs around the world are too great of a force to be stamped out by a few parties’ actions. This is what makes the net immortal and beyond basic physical limits — its been on the tip of our tongues for ages. If we’ve known that “Hmm, this software isn’t cutting it for me, but I’m sure someone else out there wrote a better program that could work for me”, applying that to the integrity and existence of connected computers itself is more than reasonable. Even in scenarios where the physical access to a computer is unavailable to some people, necessary information or reporting can circulate in places elsewhere, albeit more imprecise — such as the conditions of someone in prison or political asylum.
If we only have two or three telephones in a neighborhood or city, the concept of making a phone call still remains.
The analogy I’ve used for a while is that the net is the front-end for reality itself. We can interface with information, discussion and creation more broadly and efficiently than any other tool in the history of technology. As we once needed a few journals, a pen, a camera and a tape recorder, we now only need to have a few tabs open in our browser and a few applications open at the ready. This front-end recurs back to itself in maintaining its own existence by having no centralized dependencies, because it isn’t any single thing. Its a concept, a simple formula for working. The only thing it relies on is being in the minds of people who want to use it and keep it going.