It’s the sort of question that if dwelt on for too long as a generality drives men insane and makes them invent religions. So don’t think about it in the general way. Instead, take the question literally and apply it to this precise point in time – then there is a simple answer and it doesn’t require any priests or shamans or philosophers or spooks. You are here, reading this, because sometime in the ’70s the US defense department gave a pile of blank cheques to a bunch of libertarian hippies and told them to build a communications network that could remain functional even in the event of a nuclear war. And they did.
That’s why you are here.
These anarchist origins of the greater Internet are not something that governments or corporates really like to talk about – after all, the reason why the ‘net works so well and has grown so spectacularly is because the powers that be had close to zero input into its conception, design, engineering and standardisation. It is evidence that cooperative anarchism can function and function exceptionally well and raises some very awkward questions as to the necessity of the authority structures that dictate all other aspects of our lives.
It is a difficult concept to grasp for ordinary capitalist 9 to 5 nickel and dimers – nobody “owns” the internet. It just is. It’s anarchic roots are its greatest strength – there is no centralised control, all protocols are open and free to use for anyone who wants to write software to sit on them (with no licensing), there are no policemen on every corner to dictate what you can and cannot do and there are no constraints or limits.
This decentralised chaos holds itself together amazingly well and in complete contradiction to all conventional wisdom. It has also allowed it to grow organically at an exponential rate that is generally transparent, ie. no impact on available services, to its current estimated population of 1.97 billion.
Of course if you build something to be able to survive a nuclear war, then along with it you are going to get a whole plethora of other benefits and/or detriments (depending on your perspective on things). Chief amongst these is how do you go about regulating what gets transmitted? As John Gilmore once famously quipped, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” – this is an agonisingly painful reality that faces governments the world over. There is no such thing as effective government imposed censorship anywhere on the globe – censorship to a tech savvy and determined user is a mere inconvenience, not a show stopper. China and its Great Firewall and army of internet police (estimated at between 50-200,000 full time people) can’t do it, nor can the criminal maniacs that run Iran. In fact, probably the only regime that does successfully block information on the ‘net is North Korea – and that’s only because none of their citizens have even touched a computer.
The futility of imposing censorship and controls doesn’t mean that even the most liberal of our governments haven’t been trying. It is beyond the scope of this post to detail the efforts to date, but they have been many and have cost countless billions of your dollars in the process. Suffice it to say it is safe for you to assume that every keystroke you have ever made online in the last 15 years has been archived in a data warehouse by the NSA, you know, just in case they ever need it. The complete apathy and disinterest of the average citizen to the extent of the invisible surveillance is a worry, but given human dumbness, I doubt were it common knowledge that people’s habits would change in the slightest – they would still continue to behave like cats on heat with their personal data on any website that asks for it.
In the meantime, censorship will continue to be our politicians number one fetish and will for all eternity – this is to be expected from a class of people who are absolute technical illiterates and have no other practical talents in life other than a burning desire for telling other people what to do. It is a fools pursuit and an impossibility – short of commandeering the entire routing backbone of the whole ‘net. Even then, current technology might be able to filter and scan it all – IPv4 (232 addresses) anyway – but unfortunately, IPv6 (2128 addresses) is already here and about to be the ubiquitous standard. What that means in real terms, is that the internet address space is about to increase by – wait for it – a factor of 79,228,162,514,264,337,593,543,950,336 – and so will the complexity of the task. Then, to make matters worse, there’s all those EFF loving Tor users that turn their own private devices into stealth routers for anonymous use…
If I’m making your head spin I apologise (no I don’t), but the point that I am trying to convey is that should government attempts to censor our playground succeed on paper, in reality that censorship will be impossible to inclusively impose. That said, it is not a reason to become complacent – censorship models of any kind must be opposed by any means necessary and vigilance must be eternal.
Jebus I can crap on can’t I? Haven’t even gotten close to the subject yet. Continued in part 2.