The battle for strong Net Neutrality regulation this year got a lot of people involved for the first time in political action to defend the Internet, and with their help we were able to win. But net neutrality is only one of the ongoing struggles of epic proportions to keep the Internet more open, fair and free. Here’s a quick and totally non-comprehensive rundown of three of them, and some things you can do to help with each: fighting censorship, centralization versus decentralization, and net neutrality in developing countries. They’re in no order — skip to whichever interests you most.
Because the Internet lowers the barrier to entry for people with something to say, there are a lot of people saying things or sharing things on it that the elite doesn’t like and still feels they have the right to squash.
Governments are likely to attempt to censor people for speech that agitates against them (i.e. governments threatened by the Arab spring uprisings cutting the Internet to their citizenry, the Chinese government’s much more sophisticated system of monitoring and silencing dissidents), and both corporations and government have been involved in attempts to stifle and criminalize sharing of files protected by the draconian copyright systems currently in place throughout most of the developed world. Even if you are uncomfortable with unauthorized file-sharing, censorship of it deserves your attention — it has great potential to overstep and interfere with completely legitimate forms of speech.
To fight government censorship of the traditional, politically motivated kind, the Tor anonymity network is one of the best tools we have. All the user has to do is install a modified Firefox browser that’s configured to automatically work with the Tor network. Then, when they browse the Internet, instead of going through the normal Internet pipes, it’s bounced around the world through different computers on the Tor network, being encrypted and decrypted in multiple layers along the way. The net effect is that an entity trying to hunt a person down and silence them can’t find the person the way they would if they weren’t using Tor.
But to function properly, Tor needs people to volunteer their computers to act as nodes in the network, particularly the high-risk but crucial exit nodes. This is something that takes a non-trivial level of technical sophistication and some legal research, but if you do it, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping political dissidents under oppressive regimes (you might also be helping someone else buy illegal weapons — Tor doesn’t know the difference). Some Tor nodes are hosted by individuals, but many are managed by groups or institutions – the Free Software Foundation runs one, and a library in the US was recently the first institution of its kind to open an exit node.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Tor Challenge website has good resources for getting started running a Tor node. But if you aren’t ready to take that step, you can still make a real difference by donating to Tor.
To fight the corporate/government censorship that is motivated by greedy corporations imposing draconian copyright, you can oppose trade deals like the TPP (countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean) or TTIP (countries surrounding the Atlantic). These deals are basically ways for corporations to create laws that benefit them in multiple countries at once, in secret. If that sounds undemocratic and horrible, it’s because it is. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has very good coverage of deals like this, with petitions to sign and phone calls to make.
The Web was designed to be decentralized — anybody at one node of the network (a computer with an Internet connection) can
serve content (like a Web site) that anyone else can access. This is one of the reasons that the Web lowers the barrier to entry for people who want to share their ideas online, as compared to the traditional model of publishing houses with printing presses.
But as corporations have realized the value of the Web, and governments have attempted to regulate it, it’s become much more centralized in reality, even though the decentralization-friendly infrastructure still underlies it. Instead of visiting a myriad of blogs and sites, most Internet users today spend their time on just a few sites: Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.
The giant data caches in these sites are a flashing bullseye for prying governments and malicious hackers. Being centralized also makes them inherently easy to censor — what if Twitter decides (or the government makes Twitter decide) not to let people talk about subject X? It could make it massively harder to talk about subject X.
The exciting thing is that there is a strong counter-movement to “re-decentralize the net.” My favorite concept they’ve brought us is server federation — a system for creating an alternative to a centralized site that is actually spread across tons of different servers, all linked together but controlled by autonomous individuals rather than a single corporation. To the users, federated systems look almost the same as centralized services, but the data and interactions they enable are actually spread throughout a network that is resilient and hard to disrupt.
Good examples of federated systems are Quitter, which, as you can guess, is a Twitter alternative, and MediaGoblin, which lets you post, share and comment on media from movies to songs to 3D models, hoping to replace Flicker, Youtube etc. Quitter works great, and though MediaGoblin is still in its early stages, it works just fine. You can try it out at one of these servers.
If you’re a dedicated Twitterer or Youtuber, don’t expect these new services to completely replace the old at the moment — since they don’t have nearly as many users, you won’t get the same exposure or as much recommended content that’s highly tailored to you. You’ll also notice that neither service is as polished or pretty as Twitter or Youtube or you-name-the-giant-corporate service. This isn’t because they are federated or because they are free, rather than proprietary software. It’s because they are being mostly developed by idealistic people in their free time, rather than a big corporation.
I recommend creating accounts on the federated services and linking to them from your bio on Twitter, Youtube etc., then submitting all your posts to both the centralized and federated services, to get the best of both worlds.
Net Neutrality in Developing Countries
Many developing countries are rapidly gaining access to the Internet. Almost everyone on Earth will probably get Internet access within the next few decades, but how they get access to the Internet matters. Right now their options are:
- A creepy corporate-controlled limited version of the Internet. An example is Facebook’s Internet.org project, which provides access only to a small group of sites, obviously including Facebook, but is free to use.
- Access to the whole net, with the condition that they watch an ad every time they want to get online. Realistically, this may be the best we can do right now. Even Mozilla, Web pragmatic idealist-in-chief, has already tried developing this system.
- The full access enjoyed by us, perhaps made even more welcoming by tools designed for new Internet users, like Mozilla’s sitebuilder
The corporate-controlled limited version of the Internet is a textbook example of net non-neutrality. The ad-gated version of the Internet doesn’t exactly violate net neutrality in the traditional sense, though it still makes you feel dirty.
What can you do about this? If you’re in a country that’s facing Internet.org or similar, you can take political action by writing about these problems, talking to your friends and petitioning your government. Some Indians recently had success with this, and got their government to start making noises about improving net neutrality in India. If you’re in the states, the best thing is probably just to look for opportunities to talk about and support work on the front lines. @neutrality_in on Twitter seems like a decent way to track what’s going on there, but I’m looking for more resources.