Jan 112016

Watching the 32c3 conference videos for free (which is relevant), and coming across the inevitable “the Internet is dead”, “corporations have bored the spirit of the Internet to death”, etc. It’s a pretty common meme amongst those who somehow believe that the Internet used to be free.

The Internet was never free, but it did have the appearance of being free.

Of course we have become used to paying for access to the Internet, but that monthly payment to the ISP doesn’t pay for the Internet as a whole. As an example none of the money you pay your ISP reaches me to help me pay for the server this web page is on. Supposedly I can ‘monetise’ your visits by publishing adverts on my web site; in practice it doesn’t. At least not for low traffic sites.

And things like Facebook or Twitter do cost lots of money to run; enough that many of the large successful companies took a long time before they became profitable.

Of course I’ve been concentrating on the monetary meaning of “free” but this applies to a certain extent to the other meaning of free – you can’t post content to Facebook that they don’t agree with (although in practice very little is censored with the main victim being pictures of breastfeeding). A company like Facebook is in this game to make money and whilst they are not going to censor your content for no reason, neither are they going to fight too hard for your free speech.

In the end you can only exercise your freedom of speech on your own servers. But with the exception of a few weirdos like me, most of us are not keen on running servers.

All normal people want to do is run an application that lets them “do stuff” and the conventional way to implement an Internet application is for an application running on the person’s desktop to speak across the Internet to a server – for example the web works this way. The big problem with such an approach particularly when something like Facebook becomes almost ubiquitous is that you are giving a large central organisation a lot of data about yourself.

Of course everyone who is not up to anything nefarious is not bothered by that, right? Well perhaps, but there are other aspects of sending all your data to a company who desperately needs to monetise your data and your eyeballs. Such as targeted advertising. And worse.

The conventional way. There are of course what could be called unconventional applications that communicate across the Internet without a centralised server managing it all. These are commonly called “peer-to-peer” (or P2P) applications and are commonly used to share files; very commonly files that the copyright owner would rather not be shared (films, applications, music, etc.). So P2P has a bit of a rogue reputation.

But it is merely a means for communicating and does not dictate what is communicated. There is nothing to stop someone from implementing a P2P-based application that communicates “posts” that are the equivalent of Facebook posts. Such an application :-

  1. Would continue to use the web browser as a display engine.
  2. Run as a separate “service” on the desktop to send and receive P2P posts in the background; displaying relevant ones on request.
  3. Automatically encrypt all postings so that they can only be decrypted by the relevant audience. Keep the automatic encryption hidden to avoid scaring those who just can’t be bothered with all that.

Of course as I am not going to be writing this (I simply don’t have the time), I have no right to say how it should be written! But writing such an application would be very beneficial if we could persuade people to use it rather than the monolith that is Facebook. Unlike some people, I don’t believe that Facebook is intentionally evil, but because of the centralisation of social networking in the hands of Facebook, it has the potential to be evil.

Those who want the Internet to be free (as in freedom) need to put their money where their mouth is and write the code.




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