Five myths about the web

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

AS we cel­e­brate the 25th an­niver­sary of the World Wide Web, it gets more and more dif­fi­cult to imag­ine life with­out it – or with­out cat videos. And although our world cer­tainly has been trans­formed by the web’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, its his­tory in­cludes some per­sis­tent myths and com­i­cally naive pre­dic­tions.

Myth No 1: We know who in­vented the web and the in­ter­net, and when Ask Google who in­vented the web and the in­ter­net, and it will give you an an­swer. But the con­cept of “in­ven­tion” does not map well to the ac­tual his­to­ries of these tech­nolo­gies, which arose from col­lab­o­ra­tions among large num­bers of peo­ple and whose devel­op­ment fea­tures very few mo­ments that were ob­vi­ous trans­for­ma­tions.

The his­tory of the web has one sin­gu­lar fig­ure, Tim Bern­ers-Lee, who wrote the Hyper­text Markup Lan­guage (HTML) to for­mat textbased doc­u­ments, the Hyper­text Trans­fer Pro­to­col (HTTP) to send doc­u­ments across the in­ter­net, and a soft­ware pro­gram to view or browse pages. But Bern­ers-Lee did not sit down one day and cre­ate the in­ter­net. There were many pre­cur­sors, in­clud­ing ideas and sys­tems sketched by Paul Ot­let, Van­nevar Bush and Ted Nel­son. And Bern­er­sLee be­gan to play with hyper­text pro­grams in 1980, nearly 10 years be­fore he and Robert Cail­liau devel­oped a pro­posal for an in­for­ma­tion­man­age­ment sys­tem.

Other mile­stones in­cluded the post­ing of the first web­site on De­cem­ber 20, 1990; when Bern­er­sLee an­nounced the web pro­ject to a pub­lic mail­ing list on Au­gust 6, 1991; and the dec­la­ra­tion on April 30, 1993, that the web’s un­der­ly­ing code would be pub­licly and freely avail­able. Myths about the in­ter­net’s mil­i­taris­tic ori­gins and Al Gore’s role have proved dif­fi­cult to kill, de­spite some clear doc­u­men­ta­tion of the facts by net­work­ing pi­o­neers in­clud­ing Stephen Lukasik, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn.

Myth No 2: The web is an Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion Dis­cus­sions about in­ter­net gov­er­nance often fo­cus on in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to di­min­ish US con­trol. The US De­fense De­part­ment spent hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s de­vel­op­ing the core tech­nolo­gies of the in­ter­net. Through en­ti­ties such as the Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (ARPA) and the De­fense Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Agency, de­fence in­vest­ments played ma­jor roles in the cre­ation of the dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture that we use to browse the web. Congress and the White House – yes, in­clud­ing con­gress­man and later vice pres­i­dent Al Gore – passed leg­is­la­tion and set poli­cies to sup­port the devel­op­ment of the com­mer­cial in­ter­net and ecom­merce. And of course many icons of the web’s his­tory are Amer­i­can: Ya­hoo, AOL, Google and oth­ers.

But the web’s ori­gins are dis­tinctly Euro­pean, and even the Amer­i­can con­tri­bu­tions were in­fused with in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion. Bern­ers-Lee, an English­man, cre­ated some of the web’s key tech­nolo­gies while work­ing as a soft­ware con­sul­tant along­side Cail­liau, a Belgian en­gi­neer, at a Swiss lab. The Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nists of in­ter­net devel­op­ment at ARPA, Cerf and Kahn, worked closely with Euro­pean re­searchers and built on the con­cepts of French com­puter sci­en­tist Louis Pouzin. And when Gore pro­moted the “in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way”, he did so within the con­text of an ex­plic­itly glob­al­ist vi­sion, such as in a fa­mous 1994 speech at the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union.

Myth No 3: Gov­ern­ment power is ob­so­lete on the in­ter­net The web came of age in an era of glob­al­i­sa­tion, so peo­ple writ­ing about it picked up some of the same dizzy­ing en­thu­si­asm about what the fu­ture might hold. The best ex­am­ple is John Perry Bar­low’s “A Dec­la­ra­tion of the In­de­pen­dence of Cy­berspace”, which he wrote in Davos, Switzer­land, in 1996. Bar­low, a lib­er­tar­ian rancher from Wy­oming and lyri­cist for the Grate­ful Dead, in­cluded some beau­ti­ful lines in his man­i­festo: “Gov­ern­ments of the In­dus­trial World, you weary gi­ants of flesh and steel, I come from Cy­berspace, the new home of Mind … You have no sovereignty where we gather … Your le­gal con­cepts of prop­erty, ex­pres­sion, iden­tity, move­ment and con­text do not ap­ply to us. They are all based on mat­ter, and there is no mat­ter here.”

Ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that Bar­low’s en­thu­si­asm got the bet­ter of him. Over the past three decades, gov­ern­ments at all lev­els – lo­cal, state, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional – have claimed and ex­er­cised ju­ris­dic­tion over be­hav­iour on­line. Ex­am­ples in­clude fil­ter­ing and cen­sor­ship regimes such as China’s Great Fire­wall, court rul­ings that forced Ya­hoo to re­move Nazi mem­o­ra­bilia from its on­line auc­tion ser­vice in France and in­ter­na­tional treaties to pro­tect in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty – im­ple­mented in the United States via the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­nium Copy­right Act – to say noth­ing of vast sys­tems of es­pi­onage like those ex­posed by for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den.

Bar­low’s es­say also em­bod­ied some deeper flaws in “cy­ber­lib­er­tar­ian” ar­gu­ments, which ob­scure the for­ma­tive role of gov­ern­ment in the cre­ation and main­te­nance of network tech­nolo­gies. In his scold­ing of “Gov­ern­ments of the In­dus­trial World”, Bar­low wrote, “You have not en­gaged in our great and gath­er­ing con­ver­sa­tion, nor did you cre­ate the wealth of our mar­ket­places.” In do­ing so, he ig­nored the in­ge­nu­ity and in­vest­ment of the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees who cre­ated the in­ter­net and the web.

Myth No 4: The gate­keep­ers are dead; ev­ery­thing is dis­rupted! Another ex­am­ple of breath­less fu­tur­ism is Thomas Fried­man’s 2005 book The World is Flat. Fried­man and oth­ers saw the web and the in­ter­net as a “sud­den rev­o­lu­tion in con­nec­tiv­ity” that “con­sti­tuted a ma­jor flat­ten­ing force” and would pro­vide equal op­por­tu­nity for all com­peti­tors. The ob­vi­ous fac­tual er­ror in the book’s ti­tle should have alerted readers that Fried­man’s other metaphors – such as the “level play­ing field” – might also be flawed.

The no­tion that the web hurt “gate­keep­ers” is not en­tirely wrong. Plenty of mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, got record deals af­ter they went vi­ral on YouTube. A sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non has re­shaped academia, where re­searchers can post their work on their own web­sites, by­pass­ing the slow and costly ap­pa­ra­tus of aca­demic pub­lish­ing.

But in mu­sic, aca­demic pub­lish­ing and else­where, these shifts have not gen­er­ated the pre­dicted rev­o­lu­tions. Ma­jor mu­sic la­bels even­tu­ally ad­justed to web-based dis­tri­bu­tion and rev­enue mod­els, as did the old gi­ants of aca­demic and pop­u­lar pub­lish­ing. Other ideas that promised to “dis­rupt” this or that have fallen flat, such as the mas­sive open on­line course (MOOC) craze that led some pun­dits to pre­dict “the end of col­lege as we know it”.

The best ex­am­ple, of course, was the dot-com crash. En­trepreneurs and starry-eyed in­vestors had fu­elled the bub­ble, ea­ger to be­lieve that the web’s rise changed all the rules. But by 2000, ev­ery­one had learned the harsh re­al­ity: Sound busi­ness prac­tices were not fun­da­men­tally dis­rupted by the “get big fast” ethos of web en­trepreneur­ship. And de­spite pre­dic­tions that the web por­tends a new eco­nomic era of com­mons-based peer pro­duc­tion, old-fash­ioned in­dus­trial cap­i­tal­ism has proved quite re­silient. Even com­pa­nies that lead the “shar­ing econ­omy”, such as Uber and Airbnb, have mas­sive cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­tures and val­u­a­tions that ri­val those of in­dus­trial gi­ants such as Ford and Gen­eral Mo­tors.

Myth No 5: A mas­sive cy­ber­at­tack is com­ing One con­stant in the web’s his­tory has been the ex­pec­ta­tion that a ma­jor event will come along and change ev­ery­thing. Po­lit­i­cal fig­ures often is­sue warn­ings about a “dig­i­tal Pearl Har­bor” or a “cy­ber Pearl Har­bor”. In Elon Univer­sity’s fas­ci­nat­ing “Imag­in­ing the In­ter­net” sur­vey from 2004, two-thirds of web ex­perts agreed with the state­ment that “At least one dev­as­tat­ing at­tack will oc­cur in the next 10 years on the net­worked in­for­ma­tion in­fra­struc­ture or the coun­try’s power grid”. But so far, we’ve seen noth­ing of the sort.

Even though a large-scale at­tack hasn’t ma­te­ri­alised, ex­perts con­tinue to use the threat of one to try to shake the web out of some bad habits and in­fe­rior tech­nolo­gies. Nei­ther the web nor the in­ter­net was de­signed with un­shake­able com­mit­ments to se­cu­rity or pri­vacy, and ef­forts to up­date them have, for the most part, failed. There have been plenty of pro­pos­als with broad con­sen­sus among tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties, such as the World Wide Web Con­sor­tium’s Plat­form for In­ter­net Con­tent Se­lec­tion and Ver­sion 6 of the In­ter­net En­gi­neer­ing Task Force’s In­ter­net Pro­to­col (the cur­rent in­ter­net runs mostly on IP Ver­sion 4). These and other ef­forts have fal­tered, how­ever, be­cause of poor de­sign and lethar­gic adop­tion rates, leav­ing web users vul­ner­a­ble to gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and anony­mous bad ac­tors of all kinds.

In the mean­time, most users have grown ac­cus­tomed to in­tru­sions from hack­ers and viruses; they as­sume that there is no way to guar­an­tee pri­vacy or se­cu­rity on the web. But de­spite the mas­sive vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence of sig­nif­i­cant data breaches, the long-pre­dicted “dig­i­tal Pearl Har­bor” has not come to pass.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post

Over the past three decades, gov­ern­ments at all lev­els – lo­cal, state, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional – have claimed and ex­er­cised ju­ris­dic­tion over be­hav­iour on­line.

Photo: Dou­glas Long

A floor map at the ArtS­cience Mu­seum in Sin­ga­pore shows the routes of un­der­sea in­ter­net ca­bles in South­east Asia.

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