"Oh great, another white dude from a western democracy going off about decentralization." I promise that I will not be hawking a crypto-currency or even talking about anything blockchain-related. Rather, I see the dramatic centralization of our online lives as a direct risk to an inclusive society, and want to talk about some of the real barriers we need to prioritize in untangling ourselves from this to anchor ourselves from drifting off into techno-solutionism.
Smaller, independent and even self-run platforms and communities don't magically solve all the problems, but I do believe that they can provide the best path forward. These decentralized and federated tools allow for (and actually require) community building, and in the (very) long run, they also have to align with human decency and empathy, if only because without that, they will slowly consume themselves.
This is the first in a series on the past, present, and future of the Internet
I am a member of the forgotten gap-generation between Gen-X and the Millennials (Jillian York wrote eloquently on this almost a decade ago ). I didn't grow up "on" the Internet as a digital native -- I grew up alongside it.
My on-ramp started with dial-up access to local BBSes and eventually to the actual Internet at the time (USENET, Gopher, MUDs, and other now-mostly-dead systems), mostly accessed through a green-screen terminal via manually-typed in AT commands with a 2400 baud modem (or the 9600 baud one if you were first!). HTML itself, the base of the modern web, was just barely a project at the time, and the "World Wide Web" simply didn't exist. Being able to navigate via text screens the entire content of the local university's library (instead of getting a ride there and rummaging through a card catalog) was a game changer.
For the era, I had undeniably privileged access to the Internet -- which is to say that access to the Internet was itself inherently a privilege. This is a critical data point that gets lost in most rose-colored reflections of the Internet. That said, there was a strange undercurrent of makers, hackers, and this incredibly subversive belief in equality, collaboration, and sharing. With a huge caveat around its lack of diversity, the Internet did provide for a brief shining moment a safe space for people - awkward nerdy teenagers like me - who didn't really fit in but could find their way online. It was a ramshackle and weird community of MUDs and newsgroups and IRC chat channels and home-cooked bulletin boards. The Internet I knew was built and staffed by people who had previously run 3-line dial-up BBS systems and avid, if lost, volunteers who'd found a home and a family.
The modern Internet may seem like it still provides this, but instead of encouraging unity and positive support, it seems to excel instead at division and hate. What has happened, and how can we change course?
Google has been making headlines with their shiny Project Shield which wraps PageSpeed with other tools to defend sites against denial of service attacks. The history of the denial of service, however, runs deep, and underlines that no centralized response to it will ever be able to cost-effectively scale against a distributed attack.
Let's rewind back to the 90s. Denial of service was a very, very different thing then - it was a tool for free expression, not one used to mute dissenting opinions as it is today.
In the dot-com boomtimes of the late 90s, I was absolutely fascinated by the digital protests that sprung up in reaction to Mexico's treatment of the Zapatista Movement. Floodnet was an activist art project by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Floodnet was simply a website you could visit and it would direct your browser to constantly reload pages on the website of the Mexcian government. In addition to overloading the website with thousands of requests from you and our fellow programmers, you could add in a political message with each page load, to force the government's server to fill their log files with messages like "human rights not found."
"The FloodNet application of error log spamming is conceptual Internet art. This is your chance to voice your political concerns on a targeted server. [...] The server may respond to your intentional mistake with a message like: "human_rights not found on this server." So by creatively selecting phases, you can make the server voice your concerns. It may not use the kind of resources that the constant reloading uses (FloodNet automatically does that too), but it is sassy conceptualism and it invites you to play with clever statements while the background applet is running." (via http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ZapTact.html)
This original "denial of service" attack was seen as the digital mirror of a classic "sit-in" protest. It was a way for a David to strike back at a Goliath through technology. However, this, ahem, "sassy" political activism began an arms race that today is dominated by Goliaths alone. Instead of a tool of protest, denial of service attacks are today tools of retribution and ways to mute dissenting voices. They are massively automated and distributed, and are run not by rowdy bands of dissidents, but by well-organized for-hire groups (https://krebsonsecurity.com/2013/05/ragebooter-legit-ddos-service-or-fe…) and even from government infrastructures.
The only defense, so far, has been equally massive, and centralized, commercial services. This is a growing industry with its own round of disruptive innovators all to itself. This current business innovation is helping to move from the monolithic services protecting online infrastructures at high costs to a more scalable model, with services that smaller websites can benefit from. Still, back-end models are the same - providing shelter from DDoS attacks by having sufficient servers and bandwidth to absorb whatever their proprietary tools and filters cannot outright block.
Open source models to fight back have been conspicuous in their absence - until now.
The Deflect Project, created by the eQualit.ie technology collective based out of Montreal and Dublin, is responding to that gap. They focus on providing protection for activists and journalists around the world, who are subject to DDoS attacks from those who disagree with their views all the way to their own governments. Thanks to grant funding, Deflect is able to offer their services for free to independent media sites, NGOs and non-profits -- but the technology model under the hood is the real game-changer.
- Build for sustainability. Minimize what you have to build yourself, and leverage existing platforms This means giving strong preferences to open source platforms or at least existing services that meet a set of criteria (their service meets your needs, you own your data, shared values, track record...) For any service, someone, somewhere has already built a powerful framework that will be constantly updated and improved, and bakes in thousands of features (security, translation, powerful content management, mobile interfaces, etc.) which will be effortless to turn on when you discover you need them. Focus your precious software development budget on the much smaller number of things that are custom to your work and don't exist. This greatly reduces the initial dev costs as well as ongoing maintenance costs.
- Seriously, don't build it yourself.
has a hands-on photoshoot with the revolutionary XO-4 convertible tablet/laptop. It has an infrared touchscreen, has refocused its interface to run on top of a standard Linux distribution instead of a customized and tweaked version, and... um... it looks rather familiar. I mean to say, it's almost indistinguishable from the XO-1. And that's a very good thing. What has happened to the OLPC program is, in many ways, what I'd hoped they'd intentionally choose as a path forward- thoughtful and efficient development focused on impact over glitz, using existing projects and tools where available, and not re-inventing things that weren't broken, but using incremental improvements. Of course, that approach doesn't catch headlines as well, but it does work.
Educators stressed that teachers already had extensive training on Windows software and would be confused, even lost, in the Linux environment. Students who learned Linux and LibreOffice would be at a disadvantage in the job marketplace as employers would only hire staff that are fluent in Microsoft applications. [...] All of the adults in the conference learned how to use computers back when Windows 98 was in vogue, some even started with Basic, yet no one complains they cannot use an iPhone, iPad, or even MacBook without training.