I remember seeing Napster in 2000 when I worked for eToys.com and thinking “This isn’t going away. It has too much momentum and we always move forward.” I was wrong. Today I’m wondering about the free Web and whether it will ever go away. Our intuition tells us we always move forward and things will become better, faster, cheaper and more free. But the brief history of the Net has shown that is not always true.
In 1990 the Internet was completely free. It was an academic network, run by universities with almost no commercial involvement. The Web wasn’t invented yet, Archie, FTP, Gopher, IRC and network news (NNTP) were how we got around. Piracy was of course alive and well in the form of files uuencoded, broken into parts and posted on NNTP servers. If you wanted porn, it was really, really hard work just to reassemble a GIF.
When the Web came along, it was just another app layer protocol, like Archie or Gopher. But hyperlinks and the eventual embedding of images into HTML pages is what made it far better than any other app protocol.
There is nothing that prevents us from creating as many protocols riding on TCP/IP as we would like. Gnutella has spent 10 years showing us that distributed content is feasible. Tor has shown us that online anonymity is there for the taking. The Web is just another app layer protocol. DNS is just a phonebook for IP addresses and the Net survived the first 13 years of its life without it.
If governments ever decide to take control of basic Internet infrastructure like DNS, the Net will simply change form. The way we get content may stop being the Web and it may start being a new democratic protocol that provides client and server anonymity as well as massive redundancy against government or institutional interference.
What we think of as the free and open Web today may become a place like CompuServe used to be. A place you go to access large incumbents like Facebook and Google. Then there will be that other place where only tech geeks and people in academia go to interact freely with the rest of the world. Initially bandwidth may be slow and connections may be few, but soon the new protocol will mature, become easier to use and will gradually become mainstream, sparking a firestorm of innovation in a new environment that allows truly free communication.
DARPA built TCP/IP to survive a nuclear war. It may yet survive a worse attack by its creator.
Footnote: This post was inspired by the South African Government passing the “Protection of State Information” act today. It restricts the press from publishing what the government deems a state secret with penalty of 25 years in jail for violating the law. Many journalists in my birth country will now have to choose between a lengthy jail term and doing what is in the public interest.