Openness is the internet's great strength – and weakness. With powerful forces carving it up, is its golden age coming to an end?
How quickly the world changes. In August 1991 Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, posted a message to a discussion forum detailing a new method for sharing information between networked computers. To make his idea a reality, he also set up a server running on one of CERN's computers. A mere two decades later, some 2 billion of us are hooked up to Berners-Lee's invention, and the UN General Assembly last month declared access to it a fundamental human right. It is, of course, the World Wide Web.
Today, most of us in the developed world and elsewhere take the internet for granted. But should we? The way it works and the way we engage with it are still defined by characteristics it has inherited from its easy-going early days, and this has left it under threat - from criminals, controlling authorities and commercial interests. "The days of the internet as we used to think of it are ending," says Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks, a security software company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Could we now be living in the golden age of the internet?
Though it was the World Wide Web that opened the internet to the world, the underlying structure dates back much further. That architecture took shape in the early 1960s, when the US air force asked Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, to come up with a military communications network that could withstand a nuclear attack. Baran proposed a network with no central hub; instead, information would pass from any point in the network to any other through many decentralised switching stations, or routers.
For Baran's plan to work, every message would be broken up into small packets of digital information, each of which would be relayed from router to router, handed over like hot potatoes. Dividing the message into packets instead of sending it whole meant that communication links would only be busy during the instant they were called upon to carry those packets. The links could be shared from moment to moment. "That's a big win in terms of efficiency," says Jon Crowcroft, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge. It also made the network fast and robust: there was no central gatekeeper or single point of failure. Destroy any one link, and the remaining routers could work out a new path between origin and destination.
Baran's work paved the way for the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (see "Internet evolution"), which then led to the internet and the "anything goes" culture that remains its signature. From then on, the internet was open to anyone who wanted to join the party, from individual users to entire local networks. "There was a level of trust that worked in the early days," says Crowcroft. No one particularly cared who anyone was, and if you wanted to remain anonymous, you could. "We just connected and assumed everyone else was a nice guy." Even the hackers who almost immediately began to play with the new network's potential for mischief were largely harmless, showing up security weaknesses for the sheer technical joy of it.
These basic ingredients - openness, trust and decentralisation - were baked into the internet at its inception. It was these qualities, which allowed diverse groups of people from far-flung corners of the world to connect, experiment and invent, that were arguably the key elements of the explosive technological growth of the past two decades. That culture gave us the likes of Skype, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The internet's decentralised structure also makes it difficult for even the most controlling regime to seal off its citizens from the rest of the world. China and North Korea are perhaps the most successful in this respect; by providing only a few tightly controlled points of entry, these governments can censor the data its people can access. But less restrictive countries, such as South Korea, also splinter their citizens' experience of the web by restricting "socially harmful" sites. Savvy netizens routinely circumvent such attempts, using social media and the web's cloak of anonymity to embarrass and even topple their governments. The overthrow of the Egyptian regime in February is being called by some the first social media revolution. Though debatable, this assertion is supported in the book Tweets From Tahrir, an account told entirely through Twitter messages from the centre of the nation's capital.
It is tempting to think that things can only get better - that the internet can only evolve more openness, more democracy, more innovation, more freedom. Unfortunately, things might not be that simple.
There's a problem on the horizon, and it comes from an unexpected quarter - in fact from some of the very names we have come to associate most strongly with the internet's success. The likes of Apple, Google and Amazon are starting to fragment the web to support their own technologies, products and corporate strategy. Is there anything that can be done to stop them?