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Building the shadow Internet

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The rise of Internet-enabled mobile devices has had some interesting consequences. On the face of it, smart phones and tablets are a boon. They allow people to access email and web sites anywhere, not just when tethered to a desktop. Laptops, with their greater bulk and relatively short battery life, have traditionally been business devices for those who need to work remotely.

Smaller devices changed that. Now that consumers are used to having the Web in their pockets, or throwing a tablet into a small bag, everyone is trying to deliver a high quality mobile Web experience. Reduced screen sizes make many pages difficult to view, which leads to mobile applications (apps) designed specifically for the new form factor. Which then leads to app stores.

App stores have helped turn devices into unique ecosystems. In the desktop computer world this has not been an issue: most people would choose one operating system and stick with it. But if you own an iPhone, you’ll have apps designed specifically for it. You cannot just pick up a Blackberry and immediately start using it the same way. Sure you can find many of the same apps (and pay for them again), but that is a hassle. Now that carriers are starting to sign exclusive deals for content, it might become less and less an issue of what software runs on it than what agreements have been inked with whom.

All these new services will be introduced on spiffy new next-generation high speed networks. Which, incidentally, are being rolled out with absurdly limited usage caps. Which, incidentally, should not exist at all. Back in the mid-90’s there was lots of freaking out when AOL unveiled an unlimited dial up access plan for $19.95 per month. The conventional wisdom was that the infrastructure would not support the increased demand. Guess what? ISPs built out their networks, capacity rose to meet the new demand, and all was well. The same should happen now. If providers are concerned about where the money will come from, they should start with the $200 billion already lavished upon them by taxpayers for just this purpose.

Speaking of AOL, here is how the folks on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud talked about these new mobile environments (starts around 15:15):

Natali Morris: What they want you to think is that your computer is the Internet, not that your computer does anything else than what Google permits your computer to do, so not only do they own the Internet, they own your entire computing digital life.

Molly Wood: Well, because everyone is trying to own the connected experience, it is no longer the Web experience, it is the connected experience. And everybody wants to own that, and have your connection happen through their app.

Benito Gonzalez: It’s great - everybody wants to be AOL in the 90’s.

If you were actually on AOL in the 90’s you probably laughed at that last line, because AOL really did bend over backwards to get its customers to never stray from its sites. When you connected with AOL it launched with an AOL browser and showed you the AOL home page, which contained links to sports, entertainment, gossip, etc. - all on AOL. Many people thought AOL was the Internet because they never went anywhere else. That is what is happening again with these increasingly self-contained systems.

Consider this in conjunction with two other items. First, the increasing push for “cloud computing,” which is just a buzz phrase for remote storage. Instead of having a local hard drive, a provider like Google or Amazon makes their space available to you. All your files are on their servers; as long as your mobile device has an app for it, you can get to them. Tablet, netbook, cell phones - multiple devices all able to see the same stuff. Sounds much more convenient than having it all on a PC and copying it everywhere right? And they’ll take care of the backups, upgrades and other administrative chores too. What could be simpler?

Then think about the FCC’s soon-to-be released standards that will largely exempt wireless carriers from net neutrality rules. In practice it will socialize users to expect a more restricted experience with these devices (even more so than the reduced processing power and screen size already do). Companies will be free to throttle or entirely block sites and users accustomed to a more limited Internet will accept it (perhaps without even knowing it is happening).

Now let’s say all your data is on the cloud. It is very versatile and convenient, provided you remain on good terms with your provider. But as time goes on and more data gets on the cloud, you become more dependent on it. You can walk away from a service that has only a handful of files hosted. What if you put all of your data there? All your photos, music and so on? How long would it take to download all that if you had to without much warning? Would doing so bust your usage cap? How about private data like electronic tax returns? Will you keep a smaller, separate local drive for that or trust the provider to safeguard it? Keep them out of the cloud and you have two drives to keep track of. What happens if there is a dispute and the provider decides you have violated its terms of service? Will you be given the chance to retrieve your files? If so where will you put them?

There are worries beyond customer/business ones. What if you become troublesome to the powers that be? We already know the government will lean hard on hosting companies to pull the plug, and companies will comply. What guarantee is there that your files will not start getting mirrored by, say, the NSA? Recent developments notwithstanding, there is no reason to expect it couldn’t happen, and quickly. One of the reasons the FISA Amendments Act was so damaging was because it formalized a procedure by which the Constitution may be completely circumvented. It goes like this:

Government goes to the companies (and you better fucking play ball, mister) and says it wants absolutely everything, no warrants required. The companies hand it over. If it goes to court Congress will pass a law granting retroactive immunity before even discovery can begin. Case closed, problem solved. That is exactly how it played out in 2008. We have seen this play before. We know how it ends.

That is what is beginning now. Companies are offering an attractive, convenient and high speed (albeit capped and throttled) experience. Government sets rules privileging the handful of big providers, and an increasingly docile user base slowly funnels into one of those silos. Federal officials can then, if need be, work with these partners (Orwellian language intended) to get whatever it thinks it has to have - no legal hassles required. It is a very efficient way to manage an otherwise unwieldy population.

Many people are already thinking through the implications of all this. In an email exchange a couple weeks ago with CA Berkeley WV from wvablue.com and CPCEconomy, she wrote from her smart phone (republished with her permission):

I have this gadget here, but we still have copper wires to a rotary dial in the kitchen and the intertoobs in the front room comes from that same copper wire. Not ready to lay it all on the wireless altar.

Similarly, in the wake of the government seizure of dozens of domain names a couple weeks ago, a movement has started for a peer-to-peer Domain Name Service (P2P DNS) system. Instead of relying on domain services that bow to official pressure, activists are working on distributing their own list of names and addresses so that, for instance, WikiLeaks will resolve to 213.251.145.96 on your computer irrespective of what the US (or by proxy your ISP) might want. This of course would be vulnerable to sabotage as well as splintering of the “Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea” variety, but it offers a way to be independent of the plutonomy.

We are seeing the development of an increasingly bright line in how users access the Internet. For most people, who don’t know or can’t be bothered, there will be an array of relatively cheap and fast wireless options that will allow them to stream media, store favorite music or picture files on remote drives, and generally live their digital lives happily in a gilded cage. (This all assumes no one takes an interest in the DRM status of their MP3 files or becomes concerned that their pictures might show things that touch on national security.) For those who do not want to live there - permanently, anyway - there will be another one: Wired, slower, locally stored and self-administered - that will provide access to that portion of the network that has not yet been smothered out of existence.

Reader Comments (8)

Terrific post, Dan. A keeper. Here's what it made me think of: the parallel between the internet and the federal government. Democracy tends to work best within a limited framework, where people know people. By the time it has grown to encompass 50 states, you are voting for people you don't know, have no context for, no connection with. This was a concern of some of the founders, based on their reading of Montesquieu.

"It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.

"In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected...."

All governments are corruptible, but county and even state governments are relatively controllable by citizens/voters. A federal government like ours is perceived correctly to be significantly corrupt but it is a leviathan, too large to be affected by a citizen's pinpricks. Its components are unfamiliar to many voters and perceived as untrustworthy. We delude ourselves if we think we're the people who are voting its officers into office -- that's done by other money and other political pressure. We just choose among their choices.

I'm influenced by having moved into a rural area where people know each other, have learned to respect each other, and govern each other by turns. The system works. Nothing is perfect but it works, it's reliable and manageable, But sometimes I feel like one of the outliers in Fahrenheit 451.

Anyway, I'd love to work in a digital village which connects to but isn't tied to Google-land and which -- above all -- doesn't tell me what I should or shouldn't want to know. The prospect of having to remain in a digital universe or a nation in which choice is as limited as a McDonald's menu is appalling.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPW

I think the Internet can make a larger system more manageable just by connecting like-minded people who otherwise wouldn't have known about each other. That's true for creating new organizations like Move On as well as more informal things like bloggers getting to connect (hi!) But the Montesquieu excerpt sums up the problems nicely. Moderating that tendency to concentrate power is a really tough issue.

December 17, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

Where do we start? And when?

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPW

Excellent post. I'm with PW - sign me up for an Internet NOT controlled by mega corporations with business interests to put above my own.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor Wray

'cloud computing' is not remote storage. A charitable simplification is it's high-availability web services for companies either too small to run their own clusters, or a way to lower bigger company IT costs by outsourcing.

The cascading what-if's you lay out about remote storage service providers is weak fear mongering. If you use the Internet under the assumption that *none of your activity is private*, how one decides to use the Internet become very simple.

Then you close with a false choice between "fast, walled, wireless" and "slow, open wired." Totally false. Whatever happens, wireless is always meaningfully speed-constrained in ways that copper is not.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdirty works

dirty works, "cloud computing" does indeed mean that for small-to-mid sized businesses, but the context in which I placed it - as a buzz word appropriated for use WRT consumer electronics devices - is its popularly understood meaning. That's how it is used in the PC World article I link, and that article is fairly typical for CE journalism.

The assumption that none of your activity is private is a pretty massive assumption. I don't grant it. There isn't a binary private/not private state - that is a false choice. There are degrees of security. Go through one of the big providers and your data becomes more available. Go with a mom and pop ISP and authorities may not have as easy a time getting your traffic logs. By your logic, the fact that there is no such thing as perfect security means we should not use passwords, encryption or other privacy measures. We don't do those things for a 100% guarantee but to make our data harder to compromise. That's worth the effort, and so is this.

To your last point, I'll just note that companies are pushing a lot harder to get these high speed wireless networks up and running. The increased ability to throttle traffic will open up more opportunities to squeeze every last penny out of them, and I suspect that will attract more development regardless of the theoretical limitations compared to wired.

December 17, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

Dan,
An excellent and well-thought-out essay. Still, there are a few points where I disagree.
Along with my colleagues at www.freenetworkmovement.org, I contend the wireless spectrum is actually the medium which will, in time, allow us the most freedom. We envision a peer-to-peer electromagnetic mesh that spans the globe. We call it the Mesh Interface for Network Devices, and we think it could facilitate the civil cyberspace and cultural commons that we all so desire.
While I agree with you regarding the mid-term future, I wonder if we might want to look a bit further ahead, and ask whether wireless communications doesn't present our greatest hope for freedom?

December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Wilder

Isaac, I'd be happy to be wrong. Fill me in!

December 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

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