The Free Internet We Want (1): How the Internet became centralized, and what that means?

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

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The Internet has grown a lot since the day when it seemed like a small far world we watch through the browser’s window on our desktop PCs. The Internet conquered our world, claiming one more part of it every day. We do much of our work through it, we communicate with our families, friends, and acquaintances through chat applications, we watch movies, TV series, and shows through streaming services, and we follow the news, comment on them, and discuss public issues through social media websites and applications, which we spend hours browsing every day.

There are two ways to look at the Internet as a whole; we may look at it as a concrete physical reality, and see a huge number of different devices connected to each other, either with visible wires and cables or via wireless networks. We may also look at the Internet as a huge number of applications running on these devices, communicating with each other using a number of Internet Protocols. While in both cases we are looking at the same thing, which is the Internet, what we see in one way however differs fundamentally from what we see in the other. More specifically, what we see in the first case is a largely decentralized network, and what we see in the other case is a highly centralized network. What does this mean, and what are its effects? This is what we will try to explain in the following.

Centralized and Decentralized networks

A network is simply a set of points connected to each other. The centralization of a network relates to the way its points are linked to each other, and how one can reach a point starting from another. A centralized network is one that one of its points is a central node, which is the only one connected to all the other points. This means that reaching a point or communication between two points in the network, must go through the center. A decentralized network, or more accurately, a multi-center network, is formed by a number of points groups, each has a central point connected directly to each point in the group. These central points in the different groups are connected to each other. This means that access to a point in one group from one in another group requires going first through the local central node then passing through a number of other central nodes up to the one connected directly to the distention node.

As a group of devices connected to each other, the Internet is a decentralized network. When you connect to the Internet using your PC, or phone, all your communications with it go through a server owned by your ISP. When you request a page on the Internet, it is actually a file that exists on another server somewhere in the world. The communication between your device and the server where the requested page resides requires passing through a central node that your device is connected to, then through a number of other central nodes up to the one the server is connected to and which finally connects you to it.

There are many advantages for the Internet being physically decentralized, i.e. as a group of devices connected to each other. First, a damage or malfunctioning of any device connected to the Internet doesn’t affect the network as a whole, or it would have a very minor effect, even if such a device is a central node, its ceasing to work will only affect the ability to connect to it and hence the nodes depending on it to connect to the rest of the network. Other nodes will continue to be able to communicate with each other with no problems. Second, nobody can control the Internet as a whole, nobody can stop it, or enforce conditions or restrictions throughout the network over the data exchanged through it. Any attempt to impose such control may only succeed in a limited domain, and can never affect the whole network or a significant part of it.

How the Internet became centralized?

The Internet started as a project of the USA Defense Department in collaboration with a number of research centers in universities. One of the first objectives of the network design in its early beginnings was to ensure its sustainability in case one of its nodes stopped working. In its simple form, the Internet fulfilled this objective. Any PC needed nothing more than a modem, which is a middle tool translating digital data into sound waves and vice versa, and a phone line, to connect through the telephone network to the phone number through which the other PC is connected, and thus both PCs can exchange data, or pass it among other devices. Theoretically at least, this was a model of a distributed network, that is a network in which the communication between two nodes doesn’t require passing through a third node. Practically, and so that the network might be of any use, there has always been a need for some special purpose nodes. Such nodes were the first form of servers as we know them today. They offered from the very beginning services like receiving and storing e-mails or USENET newsgroups.

As the access to the Internet turned into commercial service, provided by cooperates like AOL, which was the first ISP for public customers, the process of developing new data transfer technologies accelerated, with the purpose of increasing the amount of data that can be transferred from a device to another in the shortest time possible. These technologies practically obsoleted connecting to the Internet through a dial-up modem. Most of us today connect to the Internet using technologies like DSL, mobile wireless cell phone networks (3G-5G), and their more advanced variations, or through cable TV, where they are available. These are more complicated technologies, they need more expensive infrastructure, hard to duplicate in the same geographic domain, which means that the number of companies or entities that can provide the internet access service or the infrastructure needed for it is less. More importantly, the user is not free to move from one service provider to the other.

The expansion of the network, and the increase of its users, whether they were data providers or consumers, led to depending more on servers, i.e. computers that offer essential services to other devices connected to the network. This was necessary with the large and accelerated increase of the number of devices connected to the network, and with the development of different protocols and applications that allowed the ordinary user to access the Internet and search for information through it. For example, distinguishing the devices connected to the network from each other required using an IP address for each. Such addresses however are impossible for ordinary users to depend on, hence DNS servers turn website addresses intelligible and easy to remember for users (like into the corresponding IP address for the server where the pages of the website reside. Accordingly, without these servers, connecting to the network in itself is useless. For most of the Internet users, the same goes for the need for websites offering search services on the network. Without these, browsing the Internet is almost impossible for them.

The next step that changed the face of the Internet and the way we deal with it, and accordingly its effects on our lives was developing internet websites to become interactive. This what was called, web 2.0, at that time, i.e. the 2nd release or version of the Web. This was the beginning of us being able to do more activities over the Internet. It allowed the emergence of social networks, as well as the user interface applications for what we today call the cloud. What is new in this stage was specifically that we no longer connect to network websites to get a piece of information in the form of a page containing text, pictures, and such contents, that are static and non-interactive. We are interacting with applications we use to get several tasks done, just like an application installed on our PC. The difference is that the application we use in this case resides and works on some server that might be thousands of miles away, but most of the time we don’t feel that difference. We use such application to create contents that belong to us, store them, and get back to them later. We also use it to browse the contents created by others and interact with it adding more content (reactions, comments, etc.)

What this means is that our relationship with any website offering interactive services has become tighter. We invest in this relationship, so it becomes more difficult with time to abandon it. We keep our personal files on some website’s server, while the contents we created on another are considered personal history with great emotional value for us. Even in the case of the services that seem easily replaceable with others, this doesn’t seem convenient after using them for some time. There is always personal data and information that were stored on this or that website’s servers. They make continuing to use it easier and faster than moving to another website we use for the first time. This also goes even for shopping websites. We didn’t only register our basic data on our favorite website, we also recorded our different preferences, previous purchase operations, etc. Thus reaching what we want to buy through an application we used before several times is always easier than reaching it through another we use for the first time.

In conclusion, the interactivity of today’s Internet websites and applications has opened for us the doors of practicing more activities over the network, but at the same time led us to being more and more attached to specific websites and applications. This was the real beginning of the centralized Internet.

Applications Centralization

The rise and fall and maybe complete disappearance of the once most successful interactive services websites on the Internet, marked the early years in the interactive Internet era. The competition was even fiercer than today, and many of us have gone through disturbing experiences when a website in which we invested in adding personal content to, made connections with others through or used for storing personal files and data, has suddenly disappeared. Sometimes we had to move to a competing website because most of those we interact with have moved to it, or because of a change in the policy of the old website that wasn’t convenient. Some websites lost the advantages that made us once prefer them. All in all, this phase created some interest in the dependable sustainability of websites. This is an important factor behind the choice of big websites nowadays. Such websites built their attraction first on providing better services, inventing new ways for getting things done, and providing intuitive and more visually appealing user interfaces, but with time their most important factor of attracting new users became their size, which meant a guarantee of continuity. They also allow connecting to more users, either socially, for work, marketing products, or any other purpose.

You can see, through daily experience, the effects of this. For example, it is easy to guess that you most likely spend a long time every day browsing your Facebook timeline, interacting with it in many ways either by posting, or reacting to the posts of your friends, or the pages you follow. You most likely get to know the local or global news through the posts you come across on your timeline and reach the information on other websites through the links posted on it. One can make such assumptions while being confident that they are true for most readers of this article because Facebook’s share of the social media market is around 74.81%. This means that three-quarters of all social media services users get these services through a single website and application which is Facebook.

The same is the case with other services we get through the Internet. When you search for information about any topic and for any purpose, your main distention would most likely be Google. Specifically, Google’s share of the search engines market is about 91.86%. This amounts to a total monopoly. The case for internet browsers is not much different. Once again, I can guess that you most likely use Google Chrome for reading this article, and I will be 65.13% right, which is Chrome’s share of the Internet browsers’ market.

How do these figures make the Internet a centralized network? If we imagine that you, as a user, represent a node on the Internet network, while other users, websites, information sources, etc. represent other nodes, reaching any of these, will most likely imply going through one of a few websites and applications. This means that these websites and applications are the main centers controlling our virtual movement through the Internet. Most of our daily activities on the network pass through them. These are our windows through which we see the Internet. If the Internet today has become to a great extent our window through which we see the world and interact with it for work, entertainment, research, etc. these applications and websites are what most of our interactions with the world have to pass through.