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freedom from web 2.0's monopoly platforms

23. Network neutrality, ubiquitous wifi, and DRM

Technology as a tradable asset

When a caveman invents a hammer, he can choose whether or not to share this invention with others within the same tribe. He, or the tribe as a whole, can then further decide whether or not to share this invention with other tribes. Once these cavemen develop a bit of business sense, such an invention can also be licensed and traded against other knowledge, objects, or services. Apart from that, the actual hammer itself can be sold as a tool or rented out.

From the fact that humans and tribes of humans interact voluntarily, and can choose each time whether they will do so peacefully or aggressively, it is obvious that the knowledge of an invention is usable as an advantage over the other party in such interactions. Hence the idea of technology as something you can possess. When this possession and tradability of technology is regarded as ownership, some people call that intellectual property.

The same is true for the possession of objects, especially scarce ones like maybe the hammer you just invented and made, as well as skills, and even the occupation of land. They all become property as soon as they are negotiated over in interaction with other humans.

Common knowledge and infrastructure

On the other hand, it will be hard to prevent other cavemen from copying an invention once they see it. Within a tribe there may be a social rules system that forbids copying each other's inventions, but once an invention is "out there", it belongs to nobody, and to everybody at the same time. It can no longer be used as a "tradable proprietary asset" in a negotiation, as it will have become common knowledge. Tradability depends on scarcity.

Common knowledge becomes, in a way, part of the world itself. A similar thing happens with public infrastructure. It is natural to humans to have a sense of territory and land ownership, but the network of roads and rivers that connects these places, the transport infrastructure, should not be owned by anyone. That way, everybody can travel freely without bothering anybody else, and interaction stays voluntary.

Now let's try to apply this picture to the modern day. IP networks are the public roads of our time, and instead of borrowing hammers from other cavemen, we may for instance watch videos on each other's websites. But the principles are still the same.

Network neutrality

The term network neutrality can be defined as a design principle, dictating that internet service providers (ISPs) should offer connectivity as a dumb pipe. This is of course hard to dictate, because ISPs are commercial ventures that offer a service on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, in a free market.

But because the internet is so important to humanity, it seems fair to consider internet connectivity more a part of the world's infrastructure than a tradable product. And this last-mile connectivity should be agnostic of which specific online resource or destination you connect to. As Tim Berners-Lee puts it, we each pay to connect to the Net, but no one can pay for exclusive access to me.

One good thing about the decentralized architecture of BGP is that it is not possible to monopolize internet access. It is always possible to start another ISP. This is not necessarily true for the existing last-mile infrastructure though, the cables and frequency bands that are closest to the user's device. There are often government regulations and economies of scale there that mean that a consumer may only have a choice of one or two ISPs.

And when this happens, ISPs have a monopoly power over the product the consumer receives, which it can leverage to offer your last-mile connectivity in a selective way, filtering part of your traffic based on who you connect to, or charging the websites you connect to money, while threatening to selectively block them otherwise.

Ubiquitous public connectivity

Regulating ISPs is one solution to this problem. They often need a license from a nation state government to operate, and you can make that license conditional on them offering a network neutral product.

A more fundamental solution would be to install globally ubiquitous public connectivity. The Open Wireless Movement promotes sharing your wifi connections with others near you, and in many backpacker destinations it is common to find wifi networks without a password on them.

Unfortunately, opening up your wifi in for instance Germany makes you responsible for the traffic that goes through it, which means a lot of people are hesitant to do so. Also, wifi was not designed to be open and encrypted at the same time, which means that in practice you need to either set up two separate SSIDs, or give up encryption for your own use.

More countries should follow Estonia's example, where ubiquitous public wifi is apparently a reality already. But publically sharing wifi connections is not the only part of the solution. It does in fact not even, in itself, do anything to safeguard the openness of the last mile, since at some point all the traffic still goes through an ISP who installed the wifi point that is being shared.

There is a lot of interesting research going on in mesh wifi. Community projects like guifi.net, funkfeuer.at and freifunk.net, and technology projects like Village Telco, the Free Network Foundation and Serval are promising that it may one day be possible to circumvent ISPs altogether for at least part of our connectivity.

Digital Rights Management

Last-mile neutrality is important, but so far all attempts to sell "partial connectivity" have all failed. Phone companies and TV manufacturers have tried to offer walled gardens with curated content to which you may connect from your device, but so far, consumers have always chosen devices that give access to the whole internet.

A principle that may be at least as decisive for maintaining a neutral web is what you could call "device neutrality". Many devices are sold with closed-source software on them that limits them from accessing certain parts of the web.

A prime example is of course the iPhone on which you may only install apps from Apple's App Store. Although an iPhone allows you to visit any website you want, native apps can only be installed from Apple, and not from other software channels. Here it is not the ISP, but the device manufacturer who is using their position to dictate which other devices you should (not) communicate with.

A more subtle variation on this is Digital Rights Management (DRM), a setup where a device's capabilities are reduced on purpose, in order to limit the ways in which you interact with some of the content you find online.

Through DRM, the device you use effectively becomes an extension of a service that is offered via the internet. The Amazon Kindle is a prime example of this, it is an extension of Amazon's online shopping website, and allows Amazon to limit, post-sale, your access to the eBooks you purchased.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Amazon offering the Kindle for sale, or Apple offering the iPhone for sale, they do so on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Humanity as a whole is still free to keep developing free and neutral internet connectivity, as well as free and neutral devices with which you can access a wealth of free and neutral online resources.

What is very wrong, is that the W3C is now supporting DRM, even though the EFF asked them not to. The W3C should be on the side of open and neutral technology, and not on the side of closed and encumbered technology. The former is fragile and needs protecting, the latter is lucrative and will exist anyway.

It is not bad that closed technology exists, but an organization like W3C supporting it sends the wrong signal and is of course detrimental to its mission. It is hard to understand how it has been possible for the W3C to make this mistake, and we can only hope they will give their own mission statement another good read, discover their folly, and revert it.

To be fair though, the W3C's recent behavior is not nearly as disappointing as Google's and Twitter's abandonment of rss and xmpp, as we'll discuss in next week's episode, which will be about federation! :) Until then, if anyone would like to comment on this episode, please do!

Next: Decentralizing the web by making it federated