The Internet is amazing when you stop and think about it. It’s a framework that moves packets of information without any central management or control. It moves these bits without bias based on the content, the sender, or the type of application. It enables any two people to connect and communicate without asking permission. In effect, the underlying architecture of the Internet values free and open access to information, the ability for people to express themselves and read and post comments, and a platform for the creation of open markets for both goods and ideas.
There was a lot of discussion about this in the early years of the Internet and the underlying framework we have now was not the only option. But in the end the architecture of the Internet reflects the beliefs and mores of the technical liberals who created it and who thought that allowing free expression was the most important aspect to build into the new platform.
What we often forget is that everything about the Internet is code, and code can be changed. In the US as we still largely enjoy the open platform that was first created, it’s easy to think that the Internet is the same everywhere. But it clearly is not. There are those extreme places like North Korea that largely blocks its citizens from having access to the web. But much more common these days are countries that are building a firewall around themselves and modifying the basic code of the Internet to their own liking.
The biggest example of this is the Great Firewall of China that has found a way to layer a centralized authority over the basic Internet topology. In China nothing a person does on the Internet is assumed to be private and everything passes through hordes of state monitors who keep a close eye on what people say and do on the web. People routinely get jailed there for something they say on the Internet and so their flavor of the Internet has turned into the exact opposite of what we have in the US today and what the original creators of the Internet intended.
The original Internet was heady stuff for technology geeks when they were the main people using the new media. I remember the days of Usenet when there were discussion boards on thousands of topics, and for the most part the conversations on these boards were civil, informational, and entertaining. It was an experience of watching the brightest people in the world discussing topics of interest.
But over time there were overlays developed that made the Internet more accessible to everyone. First came platforms like Compuserve and AOL that provided each person with a home page to tailor their Internet experience. This quickly brought tens of millions of people to the Internet where before there had been only tens of thousands.
And those early platforms have been superseded by social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit that brought hundreds of millions of people to the Internet. Today there is such a proliferation of platforms that you can no longer point to an Internet experience that is shared by even a majority of people. You can be a heavy Internet user and only use one or two applications like Facebook, Netflix, or Pinterest.
And one can argue that you are a big Internet user if all you do is play games on your smartphone. There is such a wide array of applications available that people are free to pick and choose one or many as fits their preference and lifestyle.
But interestingly, in most of the world the underlying framework is largely unchanged. Much of the same basic code that established how bits are routed is still in place. The basic protocols have largely been upgraded, mostly due to finding ways to protect against hacking, but the same basic processes still govern how a given user interfaces with the rest of the world.
As we saw with the protesters in Hong Kong last year, even in places like China that keep a tight lid on the Internet, a group of determined users can find a way to bypass the central authority and communicate with each other without being monitored. We still have the original creators of the Internet to thank for this because that freedom all derives from the underlying architecture. Unless the fundamental structure of how the Internet routes bits changes, the ability to find free expression is always going to be there for the determined user.