HTTP 404, freedom not found
While internet visionaries strived for a decentralized, open-access platform of data, the world received a mediated communication nexus whose ‘kill switch’ was in the hands of each nation’s government around the world. As internet access and digital services are now a critical aspect of daily life for much of the world, we must facilitate a global public network with decentralization and direct human communication at its core.
This August will signify 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee posted on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, announcing the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). The post marked a watershed moment in the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW), setting the pathway of global technology to the present day. With decentralization envisioned at its core, the WWW would stand as an interconnected repository for information, accessible to anyone with a computer – an ingenious concept. However, what Berners-Lee and co did not foresee was that the success of HTTP would ultimately create an Achilles’ heel in the infrastructure of the web itself.
While internet visionaries strived for a decentralized, open-access platform of data, the world received a mediated communication nexus whose ‘kill switch’ was in the hands of each nation’s government around the world. Repressive governments are increasingly using internet shutdowns as a tool to repress democracy, cutting off access to critical services; set against the backdrop of the global Covid-19 pandemic these shutdowns are having a particularly devastating impact on citizens. In 2020, 29 countries intentionally shut down or slowed their internet at least 155 times.
Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report shows us that internet censorship is flourishing. The report provides compelling testimony from the citizens that these shutdowns affect, and stresses the need for change, but never outlines a solution to this critical issue at hand – one that the WWW Foundation describes as a “flagrant abuse of human rights”. Google provides general access to a real-time Traffic and Disruptions Report which logs this concern globally, however, this doesn’t prove much use to those who are living inside these jurisdictions and ironically cannot access this report.
Over the last 30 years, web infrastructure has failed its own ethos many times over – the cause of which is not its foundation of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). TCP is a communications architecture used for networking computers and communicating across the internet. This protocol is highly resilient, reliable and ensures that data isn’t damaged, lost, duplicated, or delivered out of order. These ongoing internet shutdowns are a key indicator of the censorship point of failure within the web’s middle-tier segment: HTTP Domain Name System (DNS).
Under typical government order, internet service providers (ISPs) within a specific jurisdiction can be mandated to restrict and block website connectivity. This measure is completed when ISPs undertake URL-based blocking and block DNS servers, limiting access to all public internet protocol (IP) addresses. Through these censoring parameters, social platforms that allow for immediate communication and freedom of speech such as Twitter and Whatsapp can also be blocked and shut down. While the original vision was a decentralized network with open access, the DNS architecture ensures that the network is centralized and tied up with ISPs.
Notable figureheads, such as Berners-Lee himself, are raising awareness of the issue, noting that “we really have to fight against it”, but have not provided a clear solution to solve the problem. While this level of outcry is necessary, formidable action is what is needed from industry leaders. Most mainstream browsers today, such as Google Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox, are entirely dependent on DNS for web applications to function, providing no protection against this method of blocking internet access. Even Berners-Lee’s Solid protocol, his vision for the next version of the WWW and built by his company Inrupt, has no protection in its design against this attack.
Access Now an international civil society organization (ICSO) seeking to protect the digital rights of people globally, is hosting the #keepiton campaign, which aims to litigate shutdowns and advocate for stronger policy frameworks to prevent them. Through their efforts, the United Nations (UN) has passed the resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, condemning internet shutdowns.
Unfortunately, this remarkable work is not preventative, as the issue at hand rapidly increases year over year. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the ongoing coup in Myanmar blocking apps and websites and shutting the internet down nightly for more than a month. While it is clearly evident that stronger policy parameters need to be implemented, the internet itself desperately needs an architecture that lets people communicate independent of third-party command.
From both an attitudinal and behavioral standpoint, the increased reliance upon this system has become a blocker for standardized technologies that allow humans to communicate directly with each other. The global adoption of HTTP web that we have seen over the past 30 years has stunted the development of alternative applications that would allow decentralized communication, such as that of peer-to-peer network architectures (P2P).
As internet access and digital services are now a critical aspect of daily life for much of the world, we must facilitate a global public network with decentralization and direct human communication at its core. Utilizing P2P architecture may very well be the medium through which we accomplish this. P2P architecture would act as a foundation for decentralized naming systems where users would be able to access an unmediated network powered by their individual servers and interconnected via proximity to one another. This style of web infrastructure would reduce the control of third parties and mitigate the power of internet shutdowns as a weapon against human rights and democracy. With tangible solutions increasingly available, the time for reform of the WWW has arrived.