Twenty years ago this week Netscape went public. I've always thought of this as the day the internet really started.
I was contracting at a company nearby that had also recently gone public (before I got there) and I remember we watched the IPO looking at a page Netscape had set up for this purpose. We knew something amazing was happening but not exactly what. Little did we realize how significant it would become. We also had no idea how twenty years later the promise of the internet would be sitting on so many land mines.
The first decade had so much promise. So many new opportunities, new ideas and new directions. We all thought that truth would finally win out, that information would flow free and progress would be unabated. Sure DotCom was insane at times but the rapid evolution of the internet seemed like a dream.
The dream is starting to look like a nightmare, and I worry that the whole internet will eventually become a balkanized cesspool, like the altered universe in Back To The Future Part II. I'm not trying to be a pessimist, but there are so many worrying things happening that I wonder how it can survive.
Every government seems hellbent on tapping into everything their citizens do online, all the in name of terrorism or whatever floats their boat. With everything being connected it gives them the hooks to do what no government ever was able to do, keep tabs on everyone all the time. Some are obvious like China, some more subtle like we in the US. Politicians of all types seem to—either out of ignorance or knowledge—want to make everything you do a useful datapoint for whatever purpose they might imagine. Encryption, something we didn't think much of to start with, is a barrier to keeping that control.
Of course there are a lot of bad actors on the internet and one can certainly see the need to defend your country and your citizens against them. But just a little past that is such sweet access to everything. China is the biggest balkanizer, they see everyone internally or externally a threat, and keeping citizens under control and everyone else outside is a national priority. Sadly this is exactly what most countries want, either publicly or sometimes in secret.
Look at recent laws in France and Australia to name a few countries slowly moving towards a China syndrome. Even in the US the Constitution is just an irritating barrier to be overcome, generally behind the scenes.
The single worst thing to happen is the unlimited political giving that is now the norm in the US, unwatched and unmonitored except minimally. This is the ultimate dream for ISPs and other internet companies to ensure that everything they want—regardless of what people want—becomes the law of the land. This unprecedented “investment” in politicians can only take things the wrong way. Imagine ISPs being able to charge not just for general access but for specific access to both ends of the “tubes”. Do you want Facebook? Buy our social package. Do you want Apple? Buy our mobile package. Do you want to read thecodist.com? Sorry buddy he can’t afford to pay all the ISPs along the path to allow his packets through.
If you think this is nonsense, imagine infinite money chasing deep desire, like some kind of financial monkey business generating all the profits of Shakespeare. Buy enough politicians of any kind, and you can get everything you want.
So governments want to control citizens and foreigners, and internet companies want unlimited control over packets. Now any business on the internet has to pay and pay dearly to keep any customers able to visit. All those companies making money off of ads now have to figure out how to squeeze even more out of every page view. With so many sites today making hundreds of HTTP connections for all their trackers, scripts and ads it can only get worse if they need even more money. Yet the complexity of doing this is such a tolled-up environment may be too much to manage. A lot of people will try to charge for access and most probably just give up.
Now the last straw is all the people who just want to steal whatever they can from companies with valuable data. Not a day goes by that some brand name company hasn’t lost its business or customer data, often due to brainless security. I guess one benefit of a balkanized internet would be that the crooks might have difficulty getting to their victims. I guess ISPs could offer a hacker’s package.
The internet is an amazing human invention, but the danger winds are all around it, and I wonder how it can survive without major alteration, likely for the worse. If you have to use encryption with back doors (maybe multiple ones) thieves will take advantage and make it hopeless to do commerce. Want to express an opinion? Make sure you clear it with all the various countries and political entities before you say anything or expect to be one and done. How about starting something new? Forget it, you can’t raise enough money due to the costly environment.
Can we escape this bleak future? I have no idea. The unlimited money in the US seems unbeatable, ordinary people no longer matter since we cannot pay enough to keep up. Security seems horribly broken and will only get worse if encryption is weakened. Nations may actually seek to destroy their competitors by trashing their internet or companies or infrastructure. And defending yourself as a nation by shutting your borders (with the added benefit of sequestering your citizens) can only make it less of an inter-net and more like an intra-net.
The dream that started 20 years ago with that one web page seems like a distant memory.
Maybe in the future your grandkids will ask “grandperson, what was the internet like when you were a kid?” and you will tell them to look it up on the paper version of Wikipedia.
Gag I hope not. I suppose I can always send out blog postcards.