Schrader is a freelance software developer, writer and musician. He lives in Normal Heights.
The modern internet is a great thing, both wonderful and terrible. It is a place ostensibly run by its users, but in reality ruled by some really huge corporations. People will point to a myriad of different explanations as to why and how the Internet evolved from its early idealistic form to the land of the corporate giants we know and dislike today. But it was a series of almost imperceptible changes that sparked a ripple in the early days of the internet, dragging down our present reality, and it’s these changes that ensure that the internet, as it might have been, will never truly exist.
In its early days, the Internet was a wide open frontier, a land of opportunity, begging to be explored. And while there is no real land on the Internet, there are a finite number of computers that power it. These computers and the connections between them make up the Internet, and almost all of them are owned by large corporations. This way, there are no farms on the Internet frontier. This is true both on a large and small scale. Whether you’re starting a website yourself or using Facebook, you’re always renting space from someone else. On the Internet, we are all simple users of other people’s computers, tenants renting houses that we can never own.
There was a time when another future for the Internet was possible. In this alternate timeline, anyone can go to Target or Walmart and purchase a website. It would literally come in a box that you would put in your house. When you enabled it, it would ask you to choose a name for your website and that would be it. Once configured, you will never need to create an account on another platform again. There would be no platforms, and no huge company would have the capacity to collect and use our data. Anything you would like to share would be in your box, whatever you own. It would be a place where you could write and read about the things that matter to you, and it could be accessible to anyone, or just your friends and family. You can chat securely by video or text, reassured that your data is in your control, stored securely in a box under your router. If you wanted to sell something or offer a service, you could do that by adding it to your website for others to browse. The new technologies would be apps you could install, and since you own the box, there would be no data ownership arguments. Your data belongs to you because it is literally stored on a box in your house. In this world, the Internet could be a real force for democratization. Each person, each citizen of the Internet, would be the owner of their data and their presence on the Web, free from the limitations and problems inherent in leasing their digital land to companies.
But alas, this future did not come true.
Nothing prevents a newbie business from selling a website in a box, but there are three key limitations that prevent any realistic chance of success. For starters, to contact a website you need to know its address, and most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don’t give households a unique, immutable address. For this reason, unlike your mailing address, you could never tell potential visitors how to find you. We all know websites have names, but those names are just aliases for those underlying addresses. Since the number can change at any time, your name will end up pointing to the wrong address and visitors will be accidentally redirected to another website. Even though ISPs assign static addresses, they still block traditional lanes reserved for websites. Finally, ordinary household Internet connections are subject to huge disparities between their upload and download speeds, which means that it is much easier to read Internet content than to contribute to it.
No one would accept a world in which you could never own the car you drive or the house you live in. Some people prefer to rent or lease, but cars and houses can still be bought. On the Internet, there is no way to the property. Each of these stumbling blocks ensures that ordinary people can never truly own a piece of the Internet frontier. If computers are the land of the Internet, then our personal information is the crop. Instead of having our own little farm to start anew online life, we are forced to be digital sharecroppers. In exchange for a part of our privacy, we have the opportunity to cultivate land that we do not own. On the Internet, we are not citizens. We are just users. Is it freedom?