The freedom that we experienced on the Internet of the ’90s is waning. Governments and commercial interests take ever-increasing steps to circumscribe people’s ability to communicate digitally. The only way to change this tide from ebb to flood is to fulfill a promise that was first made in the ’90s.
We need to disintermediate the network. It’s an ugly duckling of a word, but cutting out the middle man matters more now than ever.
As long as the cables, wires and frequencies over which we communicate are susceptible to being controlled, curtailed or even disconnected when the things we say -or the way we say them- become upsetting, we will find ourselves increasingly confined.
As I said during an Internet policy session yesterday, if you ask anyone –anyone– whether there should be limits on Behaviour X on the Internet, the answer will always be a resounding Yes. That’s not a problem in and of itself, because X is usually anti-social and contrary to the public good. The problem is that anything capable of curtailing Behaviour X can be brought to bear on Behaviours A through W as well.
The only way out of this is to provide the technical means to do what we have always done in democratic societies: Keep our private discussions private and our public discussions free.
For the former we at last have all the ingredients we need:
- Gigabit wifi – We can finally start thinking about getting decent performance out of wireless data transmission, meaning that we can worry a little less about putting a lot of people onto a single wifi network;
- Wireless Mesh Networks – Enough with the telcos; we can now start looking at creating ad hoc, self-organising networks, relegating the role of the data carriers to one similar to power and water utilities;
- Secure Voice Communications – Security expert Moxie Marlinspike (yeah) and a crew of like-minded individuals have floated a very useful service recently, allowing secure VOIP and SMS communications between phones. By building encryption into the bones of the app, they’ve created software that looks and acts exactly like normal calling and texting. The only difference being that, if the other person is using their RedPhone service, the entire communication remains a secret shared only by the two of you.
The idea behind these things have been floating around for some time (the protocol underlying RedPhone has been with us since 2006), but now they’re all here in usable form.
I’ve said it before: The story of freedom of Internet freedom and online privacy will be the defining social conflict of our generation. As the peoples of the Middle East are discovering, the narrative of freedom is suspenseful, dramatic and exciting in the best and worst ways.
Whoever manages to blend these three technologies together seamlessly and easily enough for anyone to use them will assuredly be one of the main protagonists in this unfolding drama. They may not garner the celebrity of a Jobs or a Gates, but they will have the impact of a Gandhi or a King.