The Free Internet We Want (3): What do we mean by “Free Internet”?

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The Free Internet We Want, is a series of research papers:

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As a network in actual reality, the Internet is millions of devices connected to each other. It is a decentralized network, nobody can control the connectivity of all its devices, and nobody can stop it everywhere at the same time. However, if one day you wake up to find that Google services have stopped working, this would mean for many that most of the Internet as they know it has disappeared, and probably gone with it a large portion of their personal, and work-related data. Additionally, this would paralyze some of us to a large or little extent: you won’t be able to exchange emails with anybody, some of you might not be able to communicate without it at all, as you may not have other means connecting you to them, many work tasks won’t be doable, and the way, that became usual for years now, to collaborate with work colleagues won’t be available. What is worse is that many of the other websites’ services will become inaccessible for you because you used your Google account to register your accounts on them, so your access to these services depends on Google services being available to authenticate your identity.
This nightmarish situation is not totally unlikely as many might think. Our dependence on the Internet in our daily life has grown tremendously in the last few years, especially with the large expansion of smartphones. This dependency is not a problem in itself, on the contrary, it makes so many of our lives’ daily affairs easier, faster, and better, the problem is that we do not depend on the Internet, we depend on services like Google and Facebook. These services are the Internet for most of us, if they disappear, for any reason, the Internet we depend on in our daily lives, would also disappear, which means that our lives will be paralyzed, at least for some time, that much of our personal memories, our work, etc. are lost. The Internet itself will not be affected, physically, by missing any service provided through it, such services would only be thousands of devices that exited the network. This is the practical difference between the fact that the Internet, in physical actuality, is a decentralized network, and the fact that it is for many of us a highly centralized network: because every communication we have with it goes through one node, like Google, thus in case it disappeared, our connection to the Internet would be practically severed, though it will still be out there.

What do we mean by the “Free Internet”?

This picture, that we painted its features in the previous article, and re-emphasized it in the last lines can be briefly stated by saying that, for us, the Internet is not free. In other words, we do not use the Internet freely. But, what does it mean for the Internet to be free? Or what might this mean for each of us?
Security and privacy are theoretically two separate concepts, but in actual reality, they are tightly connected to each other as they relate to our personal data on the Internet. Our information security is first dependent on that this data is secured against being lost, that is to say, it will not disappear, or be corrupted (for faults in storing devices, or wrong modification in any way) so that it is no longer usable in the normal way. It also means that our access to our data is never obstructed by any means. On the other hand, data privacy means that we alone have full control over who has the right to access any data that belongs to us. It means that we choose who is granted access to what data, when, for how long, and for what purpose. It additionally means that we have the right to have our own identity revealed only for whomever we choose, with absolute free will.
We are not free, as long as we do not have full control over our personal data on the Internet. Subsequently, the free Internet is one that allows us to use it to create and store personal data that we can access all the time and has full control over others’ access to it.
Access to information is the main purpose the Internet was created for. Those who worked on making it possible for everybody to access the Internet, wanted everybody to have access to information and be able to freely exchange it with others. Free access to information through the Internet for any of us means that he/she can access any information as long as it actually exists in the form of (impersonal) data on the network. This means that no entity has the ability to control what he/she can access for any reason. When any of us searches for information about any topic, he/she is the only one who determines the priority of different sources. It should not be some application that determines that priority based on any categorization not chosen by the user (so that it might prioritize some advertising sources, or ones that pay for their information to be prioritized), or otherwise determines that some source is reliable or correct according to criteria not decided by the user him/herself.
Free access to information also means free exchange of it. This means that the information we make available through the Internet has a fair opportunity of being found by others, i.e. equal chance as other sources. In a wider sense, there should be no entity that has the right to give different sources of information different weights, so that the information offered by some source is more available than the other, neither should such entity has the right to filter information, i.e. passing some and blocking the other, as per any criteria of its choice. This principle is also called Internet neutrality, which, when applied, does not mean that we get exposed to a large quantity of disinformation, and not to be able to find reliable or accurate information. It however means that it is we who decide the kind of sources we think offer reliable and accurate information, and there should be tools that help us recognize such sources based on criteria we know and choose, not on ones decided by a third party.
One more aspect related to free access to information through the Internet is the blocking mechanisms used by some dictatorships through ISPs, by which they block their citizens from accessing websites and pages on the Internet. This is also related to the kind of centralization that makes accessing the Internet itself dependent on a limited number of companies that offer Internet services in each country while subject to the laws and administrative edicts issued by the state they work on their lands. The truly free decentralized Internet allows everybody anywhere to access it without being subject to limitations imposed by any state, or service fees that deprive many of accessing the Internet.
Communication with others is one of the most important purposes of the Internet as a communications network before anything else. In fact, everything we do through the Internet is a direct or indirect communication with other network users. Free communications with others means first to freely choose with whom we communicate, and who can communicate with us. Getting to know people we did not know before is one of the most important advantages of the Internet, but we should have full freedom in determining who would be available for us to meet and get to know. This means that no third party can decide that for us based on any criteria or data. The Internet offers unlimited openness to people who might be quite different from us, but when one application sets the mechanism through which users can get to know each other, it applies the same criteria to everyone, which means that instead of openness to people from everywhere, every faith, social traditions, interests, etc., one application forces one set of criteria limiting those we may get to know only to those who resemble us as much as possible. This might be what some prefer, but even if we want to meet only those who look like us, we should have the right to determine the aspects we would like to be in common. We might like to get to know people who use the same language or belong to the same country or even the same neighborhood, but we might also like to meet people who have the same interests that an application can’t decide for us. Some of us may like to be open as much as possible to people who are different from them. In the end, our communication with others should be subject to our will, not to any other.
Freedom of expression is one of the most important freedoms that the Internet promised to expand as much as possible and to make available to everyone. It means that each of us can express his/her opinions and ideas, and transmit them to others in any form, they can receive them whether written, heard, seen, or in a mix of these forms, this should be without prior limits, and without any consequences that threaten the safety or life of whoever practices this right. This also includes the right to anonymity as long as it is impossible in many cases that an opinion would not incur different dangers, such as under a dictatorship hunting its opposition, or people with opinions that such regime prohibits their circulation. It also goes for people living within a society that does not tolerate deviation from its prevalent traditions, habits, and ideas. Freedom of expression then means that nobody imposes constraints on what any of us publishes in any form, under any pretext. In the end, everybody has the right to choose what to be exposed to through the Internet, so anybody can avoid whatever makes him/her uncomfortable or offended, but determining this and its criteria should only be controlled by the person himself, not by any entity on the expense of the freedom of others to express whatever they like. Freedom of expression means that ideas and opinions can intersect and oppose each other and that every one of us has the right to choose what pleases him/her, but when someone imposes specific criteria for what seems to please the majority, this promotes the rigidity of prevalent culture limiting the chances of evolution and change.
Innovations and constant evolution are the backbone of the Internet, as well as communications technology and computers. While not all of us are programmers and technology developers, we all benefit from their production. The future of the Internet, and the future of our uses of it, depends largely on the freedom of developers to create new technologies that allow developing better and better applications. Decentralization allows developers to not be limited to a few programming platforms that they had to develop their applications to be compatible with so that they can reach a large number of users. In a decentralized model, services using different code bases can communicate through unified protocols without the need to be extensions of code bases specific to one platform or another. This means to develop services capable of competing to offer the best, and that we can choose among them freely, without being limited only to one platform or another.

The centrality of the user, not the service

If we want to summarize what is meant by the previous points, and how they relate to the concepts of centralization and decentralization, we may express this by saying the free Internet as it should be for everyone, is a network each one of us is its center. This means that as a virtual node of the network, he/she should be able to communicate with any other node as if he/she were the center of the network that everything passes through. Within a centralized network, the user is isolated from the network and can only access what is made available by the service that he/she has become its captive. The user centrality also means that he/she alone controls his/her experience dealing with the network. He/she determines where their data is, chooses the suitable method to protect it, who might access it, and their access to it is never obstructed at any time. They also choose with whom to communicate and meet and with what criteria. They decide on what information they want to access, from which source, based on what criteria, and in which form. They are able to express their opinions, and ideas in the form they prefer, guaranteed to reach whoever chooses to be exposed to them, without limits imposed by a third party.
The free Internet is this network that we as users have the freedom to use its different services in the way most suitable for our needs and compatible with our tastes, without being exposed to any dangers to us or to our data. Such network that each of us experience as if he/she were its center, and should have no other center, i.e. it should not be centralized itself. As the Internet is physically a decentralized network, while the technologies of developing and offering service through it force its centralization, alternative technologies can allow the development and deployment of services in a decentralized manner. This is not only possible theoretically, but it is possible in actual reality. There are many technologies already available and capable of supporting a decentralized Internet. In the next part of “The Free Internet We Want”, we will explore alternatives to centralization and what technologies may make them available.

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