Saying “the internet is broken” won’t fix anything

Saying “the internet is broken” won’t fix anything
Image: Thomas Hedger
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The internet is broken.

This refrain echoes across all corners of the internet, and has become a general, all-purpose complaint for all of the bad things we encounter online. Trolling, fake news, dark patterns, identity theft, cyber bulling, nasty 4Chan threads are just some of the symptoms of this corruption. But the first step to fixing the internet requires an understanding of what it actually is.

For most of us, the “internet” means Google, email, online forums, Facebook, Twitter, and web apps. For computer scientists, the internet is simply a neutral platform for transmitting packets of data.

When we say “the internet is broken,” it’s crucial to distinguish if we have a problem with our Wi-Fi connection or Mark Zuckerberg, explains MIT senior research scientist David Clark. ”It’s a valid expression of frustration, but it’s not actionable,” he says. “It’s important to make that distinction because they’re created by different actors.”

Clark, who distills over four decades of work in his new book, Designing an Internet, helped shape the network’s structural underpinnings since its nascent years. He worked on the internet project in the 1970s, served as its Chief Protocol Architect in the 1980s, and was the former chairman of the Internet Activities Board. Recently, he was a facilitator at the National Science Foundation’s 10-year Future Internet Architecture program, which seeks to test the viability of new architecture that changes how data are tagged and transferred online.

We have to get over the fantasy of one homogenous global network, says Clark. The internet is, in reality, a different space depending on where a user logs on. For instance, over 40 countries filter and censor web content, according to the OpenOpenNet Initiative survey. A 2018 Oxford University study estimates that over 6 million sites are blocked in China, Indonesia, Iran, and Turkey—10 times larger than previous estimates.

More than ever, it feels like the 45-year-old internet is due for a rethink. There’s certainly no shortage of groups vying to reimagine it. W3C, Raytheon, the US National Science Foundation have initiatives to improve its architecture. Pioneers of the tech industry such as Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Jaron Lanier all clamor for an improved internet.

But where would we even begin, when everything seems dire?

A wish list

Beyond the evolution of the internet’s technical design, Clark is keen to learn how the utility he helped build affects society and its users. In Designing an Internet, he presents a 17-point wish list for a better internet compiled from policy papers, speeches, and manifestos:

Catalog of Aspirations

The Internet should reach every person by some means. (Reach)

The Internet should be available to us everywhere. (Ubiquity)

The Internet should continue to evolve to match the pace and direction of the larger IT sector. (Evolution)

The Internet should be used by more of the population. (Uptake)

Cost should not be a barrier to the use of the Internet. (Affordable)

The Internet should provide experiences that are sufficiently free of frustration, fears, and unpleasant experiences that people are not deterred from using it. (Trustworthy)

The Internet should not be an effective space for lawbreakers. (Lawful)

The Internet should not raise concerns about national security. (National Security)

The Internet should be a platform for vigorous innovation and thus a driver of the economy. (Innovation)

The Internet should support a wide range of services and applications. (Generality)

Internet content should be accessible to all without blocking or censorship. (Unblocked)

The consumer should have choices in their Internet experience. (Choice)

The Internet should serve as a mechanism for the distribution of wealth among different sectors and countries. (Redistribution)

The Internet (and Internet technology, whether in the public network or not) should become a unified technology platform for communication. (Unification)

For any region of the globe, the behavior of the Internet should be consistent with and reflect its core cultural/political values. (Local values)

The Internet should be a tool to promote social, cultural, and political values, especially universal ones. (Universal values)

The Internet should be a means of communication between citizens of the world. (Global)

As the internet seeps into more aspects of our lives, there’s a clamor for improvements in both its content and architecture. “We’re dealing with some horrible things—fake news, political intervention, abusive behavior, hate amplification—the negative effect has been more apparent and people are asking why isn’t this space more disciplined, more civil?,” Clark says.

He categorizes the aspirations into three pragmatic buckets: utility, economics, and security. But the subtext of each aspiration is a longing for structures that would entice users to be better humans—an internet that is moral.

Designing for human character

How did the internet devolve to this point in the first place? Were its original creators so naive to believe that users would be respectful and virtuous?

Clark explains that the current protocols that govern the internet were designed for a different time. “We were not hooking up PCs in the 1970s. We were hooking up large time-sharing systems run by institutions—mostly research and education systems—who knew their people well,” he says. “It wasn’t that we trusted everybody, it’s just that the social constraints were different.”

“The thing that really blew this open is the rise of the individual consumer [in the 1990s]. As soon as you begin to offer dial-up access, you open up the internet to anybody who wants to join, and those people aren’t sitting in a space where their behavior is being disciplined,” Clark says. “The internet is a very thin veneer on top of the real world with all its strengths and flaws.”

Billions of people access the internet via mobile phones, smart devices, PCs. Any attempt to reimagine the internet needs to grapple with the spectrum of human motivations. As of June 2018, 55% of the world’s population is already online, and that’s only bound to increase. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, admits to the failure of the utopian dream for his creation. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said humanity is going to do a good job with this,” he recently told CNBC. “If we connect all these people together, they are such wonderful people they will get along. I was wrong.”

Freedom and control

The hopeful news is that countries are already making key improvements in accessibility and safety. The US is putting a lot of resources into giving more people access, while the French government puts in measures to lower the cost of connectivity. The European Union is actively fighting the spread of fake news and disinformation by empowering an army of fact checkers and promoting media literacy.

Several groups are also searching for greener alternatives to the internet’s physical infrastructure. The carbon emissions from the internet’s vast network of undersea cables, routers, servers, and data centers rival that of the aviation industry. Boston Consulting Group reports that the net is responsible for a billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. And as more people go online in the coming years, the internet’s ecological footprint is only expected to get larger. (Here’s a live data visualization of how many trees are needed to offset one Google search.)

The notion of shutting down the internet to start anew is a fairytale. Any improvement will be incremental, hard-fought and deliberate. Clark notes that even the US Federal Communications Commission which regulates the country’s telecommunications and broadcast media industries isn’t interested in shaping the public character of the internet. Its solution is to encourage competition and hope for the best, as stated in its latest strategic plan. Clearly, the laissez-faire attitude hasn’t exactly worked out for the country.

The problem—or the “fundamental tussle,” as Clark puts it—lies in the fact that private companies, not governments control the internet today, and relying on the good conscience of profit-driven technocrats offers little assurance. “That’s a pretty inconsistent hope to lean on,” he says. “Remember, on Facebook, you’re not the customer. You’re the product served to advertisers.”

Ultimately, improving the internet hinges on seeing it as public service first, instead of a money-making venture. Barring one global entity with the will and the resources to enforce this, fixing it will be a kind of community project, and one of the most urgent kind.

Clark admits that it will be impossible to fulfill all 17 aspirations on the catalog, but it offers real targets to aim for. ”I don’t think we’re asking too much for the internet to be a better place.”