Does the Internet Change Everything?

Posted on 04 Apr 2017 by Marek 
Does the Internet change everything? What even is the Internet?
Before embarking upon a discussion about the political landscape, the lecture introduced some of the governance and technical architecture of the Internet.

I was invited to give a talk at Westminster University to undergraduates studying a module entitled Democracy in Crisis. Each earlier lecture in the course dealt with one topic such as democracy and capitalism, democracy and populism, or democracy and Islam. The last lecture would be to explore the question "Does the Internet change everything?" and I made it my goal to try and reference many of the themes from earlier in the course.

There was a lot of ground I wanted to cover and only fifty minutes, plus some seminars afterwards, to deliver a critical introduction to some of the subjects. I prepared by going through the course reading list, and used this as a framework upon which to base my talk. In many ways my talk was a critique of Schmidt and Cohen's The New Digital Age which I felt portrayed a very optimistic but one-sided vision of the future. But first I had to explain what we are actually talking about: the Internet.

I gave a very simplified introduction to how the Internet works: from governance, through research and development of technology, to technical implementations.

  • the Internet is mostly made up of corporate entities exchanging data, where companies both compete and collaborate to make a global infrastructure
  • these collaborations generally take the form of a large number of different types of organisations trying to steer development of the Internet: the Network Operator Forum, the Working Group, the Task Force, et cetera
  • those entities have the power to choose how data gets from A to B, and the larger entities ("autonomous systems" in networking parlance) have greater power — which can lead to unwelcome surprises, such as the corporate-political situation of providers changing agreements from settlement-free to paid-for peerings
  • there is a huge deal of trust required to make the Internet work, as well as a bit of "wing and a prayer" hoping that the technology we build is reliable enough and performs adequately as we keep on making this huge machine grow bigger and faster
  • to illustrate one of the topics of trust, we touched on some of the bad things that can (and do) happen on the Internet: rogue routing announcements

The majority of my talk discussed the uses of the Internet — by individuals, groups, corporations, the media, politics — and how these might create opportunities and tensions for democracy.

  • one of the most powerful institutions on the Internet is an advertising broker
  • the role of the media may be changing as it becomes easier to attract an audience to blogs or "new media" news sites
  • sometimes the aim is not to be seen more, but to vanish from view on the Internet
  • we discussed mass surveillance, something which becomes easier as services provided on the Internet become more centralised as capitalism plays out through mergers and acquisitions; and that centralisation makes censorship easier as well, such as when Egypt's government tried to disconnect the country from the Internet around the time of the Arab Spring
  • we touched on how uses of technology can creep from protecting innovators to stifling the user, such as the increasing pervasiveness of Digital Rights Management
  • by this point in the talk the situation looked pretty gloomy, so I turned to science fiction to look at whether there were any positive uses of technology; and I suggested that e-voting could be one, but huge challenges remain
  • perhaps some of the technologies that will help the individual will be tools for privacy, such as Tor or VPNs, and machines like 3D printers… but we still aren't at the stage envisaged by Schmidt and Cohen where "video cameras installed in police cars will help keep the police honest"

In the discussions that followed the lecture, the general theme that came out was that the Internet doesn't change everything, but perhaps it amplifies the status quo:

  • the individual's persona on the Internet will gradually become more and more important; it will be intangible, but it will be written indelibly in servers outside our individual control
  • the powerful and wealthy will be able to afford services or legal action to try to erase some of their bad behaviour (a prediction made by many, including Julian Assange)
  • the Internet is the largest and perhaps most complicated machine humans have every built, so how does the individual hold their government to account when the balance of knowledge and power is so stacked against them?

This brings me back to one of the first things I discussed in the talk: the cloud. Network engineers like myself use a cloud shape on network diagrams to elide detail, to hide complexity. "Cloud" has become a buzzword, and one which has escaped our industry into almost common usage. But we must never forget that this metaphor is a double-edged sword: while it hides complexity and responsibility, it can also hide understanding. As it meets the Internet, we all have much work to do to keep Democracy honest to the people it serves.

The discussions prompted by the lecture were fascinating. In the four hours of seminars that followed we debated whether Snowden is a hero or a villain, we talked more about the commercial aspects of the Internet (especially net neutrality), gender equality in technology (both of those working in the field, and users and their skills vs perception of skills), we dove into the Investigatory Powers Act, and generally ranged far and wide across the foundations that the lecture series had built. For me, it was really encouraging to see students thinking critically about these things, many of which were outside their comfort zone of the humanities.

Read more in the PDF presentation.