The Death of the Internet

Intended to be open, free, and decentralized, it’s now dominated by a handful of companies that control what we see and what we can say.

  • Jonathan TEPPER

The internet was meant to be open, free, and decentralized, but today it is controlled by a few companies with grave consequences for society and the economy. The internet has become the opposite of what it was intended to be.

In the early 1960s, Paul Baran was an engineer at the RAND Corporation when he began thinking about the need for a communications network that could withstand a nuclear strike. RAND was contracted by the Pentagon to create a system that could continue operating even if parts of it were destroyed by an atomic blast. It was supposed to be the ultimate decentralized system.

Baran went on to publish a paper in 1964 titled “On Distributed Communications,” which was influential in establishing the concepts behind the architecture of the internet.

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn put these concepts into practice at the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1960s, and created the communication methods that make the internet possible. The principles of freedom and openness were at the heart of the design—packet switching made the system robust in the face of nuclear attacks and Internet Protocol allowed for open interconnection.

Years later, Cerf said, “The beauty of the internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group.” In his view, “this model has not only made the internet very open—a testbed for innovation by anyone, anywhere—it’s also prevented vested interests from taking control.”

The principle of decentralization went directly against the business models of technology giants like AT&T and IBM. Until AT&T’s monopoly was broken up in the early 1980s, communications were extremely centralized and traveled through dedicated, point-to-point channels. The use of third-party devices on the network was prohibited.

The internet would have remained an obscure channel for government and scientists to communicate had it not been for Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s, he created a way for information to be shared easily using hypertext via the World Wide Web. …

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