It waddles and quacks, but is the Internet still a duck?
The Guardian published on March 28th 2013 an article by Cory Doctorow with the headline ‘Copyright wars are damaging the health of the internet’. His argument is simple and persuasive – that the Internet has become too important to our civil, cultural, and personal lives and well-being, and our ability to protect our freedom, to be compromised in the attempt to prevent copyright infringement.
But many people, mostly without knowing it, have already deserted the Internet. Their traffic is now carried over private networks owned by large content and service providers. The Internet is by definition a network of networks, and your packets used to find their own way often across many other networks. The Internet still exists, but compared with these high capacity and well connected private networks, internet traffic is decidedly second class.
If this seems surprising, consider a few of the more popular internet activities. Watching a cat video on YouTube, for instance. Google has been keeping up with YouTube’s huge traffic requirements by connecting to all the large consumer ISPs directly. GMail the link to a friend, G+ it, and you use the same private connection. Tweet it and even for such tiny data demand as tweets, quality of service issues could well have driven your message via Twitter’s private connections. Your DropBox is hosted by Amazon – yes really, the online shopping site -, another private network currently spinning its own web. If it is big or successful, the chances are it is getting off the Internet as fast as it can.
This does not mean the Internet is not healthy. Far from it. The open Internet is enabling extraordinary innovation all over the place. Having the giants on their own expressway ensures that the smaller players don’t get flattened on the common roads.
It does mean, however, that for ordinary users, including bloggers and tweeters of all persuasions, the health of the Internet is irrelevant. Regulators are now dealing with the behaviour of a relatively small number of very big companies, not with anything that can really be considered a ‘common’, or public space.
A much deeper understanding of today’s reality and direction of travel is needed if those regulators are to protect open innovation and communication for us. The fact that internet protocols make seamless the connections between networks that allow public ‘rights of way’ – the old public Internet – and the new private networks, should not confuse us. It might still waddle and quack, but the Internet is no longer the duck it once was.