The future of the open internet — and our way of life — is in your hands

“魔術師” (The Mage) by Hsu Tung Han. 2013. Wood.

There are a lot of scary things happening these days, but here’s what keeps me up late at night. A handful of corporations are turning our open internet into this:

These corporations want to lock down the internet and give us access to nothing more than a few walled gardens. They want to burn down the Library of Alexandria and replace it with a magazine rack.

Why? Because they’ll make more money that way.

This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but this process is moving forward at an alarming rate.

History is repeating itself.

So far, the story of the internet has followed the same tragic narrative that’s befallen other information technologies over the past 160 years:

  • the telegram
  • the telephone
  • cinema
  • radio
  • television

Each of these had roughly the same story arc:

  1. Inventors discovered the technology.
  2. Hobbyists pioneered the applications of that technology, and popularized it.
  3. Corporations took notice. They commercialized the technology, refined it, and scaled it.
  4. Once the corporations were powerful enough, they tricked the government into helping them lock the technology down. They installed themselves as “natural monopolies.”
  5. After a long period of stagnation, a new technology emerged to disrupt the old one. Sometimes this would dislodge the old monopoly. But sometimes it would only further solidify them.

This loop has repeated itself so many times that Tim Wu — the Harvard law professor who coined the term “Net Neutrality” — has a name for it: The Cycle.

“History shows a typical progression of information technologies, from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system.” — Tim Wu

And right now, we’re in step 4 the open internet’s narrative. We’re surrounded by monopolies.

The problem is that we’ve been in step 4 for decades now. And there’s no step 5 in sight. The creative destruction that the Economist Joseph Schumpeter first observed in the early 1900s has yet to materialize.

The internet, it seems, is special. It’s the ultimate information technology — capable of supplanting the telegram, telephone, radio, cinema, television, and much more — and there’s no clear way to disrupt it.

But the war for the commanding heights of the internet is far from over. There are many players on this global chess board. Governments. Telecom monopolies. Internet giants like Google and Facebook. NGOs. Startups. Hackers. And — most importantly — you.

The war for the open internet is the defining issue of our time. It’s a scramble for control of the very fabric of human communication. And human communication is all that separates us from the utopia that thousands of generations of our ancestors slowly marched us toward — or the Orwellian, Huxleyan, Kafkaesque dystopia that a locked-down internet would make possible.

By the end of this article, you’ll understand what’s happening, the market forces that are driving this, and how you can help stop it. We’ll talk about the brazen monopolies who maneuver to lock down the internet, the scrappy idealists who fight to keep it open, and the vast majority of people who are completely oblivious to this battle for the future.

In Part 1, we’ll explore what the open internet is and delve into the history of the technological revolutions that preceded it.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about the atoms. The physical infrastructure of the internet. The internet backbone. Communication satellites. The “last mile” of copper and fiber optic cables that provide broadband internet.

In Part 3, we’ll talk about bits. The open, distributed nature of the internet and how it’s being cordoned off into walled gardens by some of the largest multinational corporations in the world.

In Part 4, we’ll explore the implications of all this for consumers and for startups. You’ll see how you can help save the open internet. I’ll share some practical steps you can take as a citizen of the internet to do your part and keep it open.

Help us fight this war. Here’s what I’m asking you to do:

  1. If you can afford to, donate to nonprofits who are fighting for the open internet: Free Press, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge.
  2. Educate yourself about the importance of the open internet. Read Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.” It is by far the best book on this topic.
  3. Contact your representatives and ask them what they’re doing to defend Net Neutrality.
  4. Share this article with your friends and family. I realize the irony of asking you to use walled gardens to spread the word, but this late in the game, these are the best tools available. Share this article on Facebook or tweet this article.

Only we, the public, can end The Cycle of closed systems. Only we can save the open internet.

Thank you for reading this, and for caring about the fate of our open internet.

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