Don Sambandaraksa* - Disruptive.Asia
At Apricot 2017 last week, APNIC chief scientist Geoff Huston delivered a scathing, dystopian snapshot on how the telecoms industry has evolved from a public peer-to-peer service – where people had the right to access telecommunications – to a pack of content delivery networks where the rules are written by a handful of content owners, ignoring any concept of national sovereignty.
Presentation title: “The Death of Transit”.
Huston’s argument runs like this [Strap yourselves in. – Ed.]:
At the telecoms industry’s peak in the 20th century, sad Huston, telcos were the biggest employers in any country. Governments created Universal Service Obligation rules and put in massive cross-structural subsidization to ensure everyone had telephony at an affordable price.
The networks were dumb handset-to-dumb handset. This was the heritage of the telecoms industry. Every handset was the same and the circuit-switched network saw every user uniformly.
When it came to building computer networks, the same approach was taken. Everything was done at the edges, and the network was still transparent. Computers did not trust the network, and protocols were designed so that hopefully all the data came through, but it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t.
As for the computer network itself, there is no circuit to follow. All each switching element needs to know is the relative address of the packet. The network is stateless and no matter where a packet is injected, that data should reach its destination.
TCP as a piece of software engineering has been phenomenal. This is how the Internet was made. From a technical standpoint it was unbelievably efficient – but when the concept of money was introduced it changed everything.
The industry soon discovered that it was very hard to make money flow evenly. Telephone companies spend decades making financial settlements between providers so that when someone rang a number, the call happened and the call’s money was divided between the two in a way that was agreeable to both.
But when it came to the Internet, the system was very crude. They worked out who was the dominant partner (the provider) and the customer. In this scenario, the customer pays. In a few cases where there was no dominance, zero-dollar peering was agreed. This resulted in a world where a small club at the top – the AT&Ts and Verizons – got all the money. In some countries, there were national aggregators like Telstra who ran their own fiefdoms and everyone in the country paid them. Money flowed upwards.
Then things changed. It is no longer telephony where clients talk to clients. Clients only talk to servers, not other clients. Packets do not flow edge to edge. People do not communicate with each other – they both communicate with Google.
Then the rebellion came. The carriage folks had a massive fight with the content folks. The access folks were told by their clients that the only reason they have customers is because the content folks deliver content. Carriers said, no, that’s wrong: traffic is traffic.
It was a critical battle over who was dominant – and ultimately, carriage lost and content won. Today Facebook serves its content locally out of data centers scattered around the world. The content networks replicate the data and spit it in your face without the latency of the long links anymore.
Privatization of public space
Over the last six years, Huston said, a significant shift has occurred in which companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have been investing in subsea cables. No public carriage provider is the dominant partner anymore. Public carriage has effectively stopped, Huston insisted, and private carriage is taking over. Content distribution now rules the long-distance market.
But the changes are more profound than that, Huston said. New investments are creating private networks, not public networks. In this context, transit is not a public concern – it is a private concern that serves Google or Facebook’s business plans.
Today the network is split into clients and servers. Servers sit in fortified castles in data centers. If someone has valuable data, are they going to store it at home or in a CDN like Akamai? CDNs now rule. Users no longer connect to users.
In this new world, said Huston, there is no network neutrality, there are no transit providers, there is no universal service.
This is not just the death of transit, but the privatization of a public space, of a public domain that has lasted over a century. Edge computers are now just televisions looking into the cloud data center. It is the Google cloud, not the user’s local hard drive, that matters. When everything is content, Huston said, there is no telecommunications. Now that it is all about commerce, not carriage, regulators have nothing to do.
This is a fundamental change, he said. There is no network neutrality because it is a private network. There is no right of access as you have no rights as a consumer. Even concepts like market dominance are irrelevant in face of the excessive market power of Google and Facebook.
Today, Huston said, the Internet is bringing in not a golden age but a gilded age. The chrome sheen is only a few atoms thick. Underneath is a savage world that is rapidly privatizing what was once public property, turning it into a private space to be exploited at will without any regulatory oversight. What is data privacy? It is whatever Google’s and Facebook’s rules say it is, not what any country’s regulator says. The content folks in the game are setting the rules of the game, Huston maintained – and this is the worst possible corruption that you can have.
*Don Sambandaraksa is a contributing editor for Disruptive.Asia. For most of the 00s, he was the face of Database, the enterprise tech section of the Bangkok Post, and later covered Thailand and the region for Telecom Asia. Before becoming a journalist he was a civil servant at Thailand’s ICT Ministry. He is currently studying for an M.Sc. in Digital Currency at the University of Nicosia. He is also an avid proponent of strong encryption and Bitcoin.
Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor
Web Foundation · March 12, 2017
Today is the world wide web’s 28th birthday. Here’s a message from our founder and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee on how the web has evolved, and what we must do to ensure it fulfils his vision of an equalising platform that benefits all of humanity.
Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.
1) We’ve lost control of our personal data
The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.
This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.
2) It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.
3) Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?
These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.
Our team at the Web Foundation will be working on many of these issues as part of our new five year strategy – researching the problems in more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all. I urge you to support our work however you can – by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies and governments or by making a donation. We’ve also compiled a directory of other digital rights organisations around the world for you to explore and consider supporting too.
I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have protested in the streets. In the past year, we have seen Nigerians stand up to a social media bill that would have hampered free expression online, popular outcry and protests at regional internet shutdowns in Cameroon and great public support for net neutrality in both India and the European Union.
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone. If you would like to be more involved, then do join our mailing list, do contribute to us, do join or donate to any of the organisations which are working on these issues around the world.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee
The Web Foundation is at the forefront of the fight to advance and protect the web for everyone. We believe doing so is essential to reverse growing inequality and empower citizens. You can follow our work by signing up to our newsletter, and find a local digital rights organisation to support here on this list. Additions to the list are welcome and may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org