Spark

Is the dream of an 'open' internet dead?

Walled in by the gardens of Facebook and Google and stifled by authoritarian governments. Are we headed toward a world of 'splinternets'?

As some countries restrict and replace content, are we headed toward a world of multiple internets?

The internet's architects imagined a network where ideas and information flowed freely, and anyone could be a publisher or broadcaster. So what happened? (Adam Killick)
Listen53:59

Over the last couple of decades, there has been an incredible change in the architecture of the internet. Not just how it operates, but how we operate within it.

Think back to the days when YouTube was new, when only a handful of people knew what Facebook was, and when cell phones were for making phone calls. 

Early adopters were making podcasts and writing blogs. Wikipedia was an exciting experiment. The old gatekeepers of media were crumbling and the web seemed open to everyone. 

Today, however, we experience the internet through apps, ads and proprietary platforms. 

There's also the decline of the open-source software movement, the possibility of a fragmented internet, and the growing popularity of small, closed networks. 

It wasn't supposed to be that way, said David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society

Weinberger told Spark host Nora Young that the architects of the internet believed its openness would allow ordinary people to become publishers, broadcasters, and create networks without restriction all over the world.

"The idea was the internet would allow connections among everyone, based upon what our interests were and what we liked, who we liked — and that would be a far more democratic sort of culture," said Weinberger, who is also the author of Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity and How We're Thriving in a New World of Possibility

David Weinberger said we are a long way into the 'split' internet already. (David Weinberger)

"This was very much in direct response to the decades and centuries and even millennia of top-down organization, in which the only people who got to speak and be heard were people at the top," he said.

So what happened?

In part, it was because the internet's "culture" was still dominated by white, privileged people who had the time and wealth to connect to the internet and write a blog. It's also because some people — often those with privilege who got in first — were able to amass great audiences, but most people never achieved that sort of connection with the wider internet.

"That sort of concentration around a handful of people who amass massive numbers of people reading them seems to be common in nature — and seems to be also almost inevitable in communications," Weinberger said.

More than that, governments and large corporations began to establish controls or boundaries on what people could see and engage with online.

Countries like China and Iran — and, increasingly, Russia — are shutting down their citizens' access to the broader internet. In China's case, it has replaced dominant corporate platforms like Google and Amazon with its own versions. Add to that China's move to develop internet infrastructure around the world, does it mean that we're headed toward a cyberspace with two (or more) separated internets?

"I think that we are a long way there already," Weinberger said.

"Millions of people who are inspecting the contents of messages, and the ability to intercept them and to replace some forbidden content with different content. It's a pretty thorough and pretty effective system. And the result is that I think it's at times useful to think about there now being more than one internet."

The idea was the internet would allow connections among everyone... and that would be a far more democratic sort of culture. ​​​​- David Weinberger

Weinberger points out, however, that amid the current threat of "splinternets," it's important to note just how the internet has transformed nearly everyone's lives.

"So on one hand, yes, the dream is dead. On the other hand, that statement causes us, I think, to overlook the quite often very positive transformation that the internet has brought about: in our sense of what it means to speak in public, what it means to connect in public. 

"The nature of friendships, our ability to to to find and hold somebody around the world in some type of cognitive or emotional embrace, to really connect with people. We take all of that for granted."

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