The Internet was, from its inception, financed and promoted by the Pentagon and Wall Street.
One is tempted to miss the simpler and optimistic times before the internet was out of control, or perhaps, too much under the control of so few.
In a manifesto published in September 2018, Tim Berners-Lee himself recognized that “despite all the good that we have achieved, the Internet has become an engine division under the influence of “powerful forces that use it for their own dark ends.”
It is easy to understand and identify with this nostalgia for the old Internet, in which the masters were the geeks of eBay and not the Barons from Amazon, Facebook and Apple.
These feelings only intensify with each passing day, as the virtual terrain formerly occupied by artisans and digital amateurs gives way to the huge investments of sovereign wealth funds and the harsh hand of governments to appropriate something that in its simplest form should not belong to anyone.
Without the majority of observers knowing or noticing, the environment that in the past was joyfully called “cyberspace” – an immaterial, virtual and ephemeral entity – has become the sector of the economy that concentrates the most capital. Its cohesion depends on data centers, submarine data cables and sensor-activated infrastructures, all of the most material, which extend from end to end of our cities.
In fact, in 2018, the four Internet giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – invested more capital than the four major oil companies – Shell, Exxon, BP and Chevron – with a total of $77.6 billion and $71.5 billion respectively.
It is to be hoped that these astronomical figures convince those who continue to cling to the idea that adventure has something immaterial, let alone virtual.
What could be more material than a sector that invests more money than the oil companies in bringing all those apparently free services to our devices?
Given the process of “colonization” of the once untouched cyberspace by the forces of capital and political power, the longing for other, simpler times is forgivable.
The difficult thing to forgive are the political efforts to return us to that imaginary era by means of clever legal and technological tricks.
The Berners-Lee manifesto, which gave a lot of talk to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Internet, is a good example of this kind of logic of the technocratic savior.
If we assume that the engineers have let us down – how would they foresee in 1989 the disaster that Facebook would be – they should also be the ones who come to save us.
Berners-Lee and the Web Foundation that he chairs propose an innovative technological platform, called Solid, to “restore the power and capacity for intervention of individuals in the Network”.
Solid will allow users to determine, among other things, what will happen to the data they generate and who will have access to it.
By itself, the platform constitutes a refreshing departure from the current chaotic model in which companies with greater extractive capacity end up monopolizing access to user data.
Berners-Lee approach is based on an idea of the Internet that has practically paralyzed any effective political action and that seems to favor the appearance of two power players: China and The United States.
Berners-Lee’s idea seems to want to push the idea of a territory without blemish, inhabited by engineers, geeks, and amateurs.
It leaves aside the reality of the arrival of monopolistic initiatives, that settled in it to impose the operation of their secret services and surveillance departments.
Not many people know, or seem to remember that the original data networks were developed and promoted by the Pentagon and Wall Street.
Governments were present on the Internet from the start, not only through their secret services but also through their Treasury and Commerce offices.
They were the ones that determined the global commercial and financial priorities to ensure the dominance of the US.
Advertisers did not get on the digital bandwagon in the decade of the two thousand, but since the beginning of the 1990s, with the arrival of the first web browsers.
The Internet was born with limitations imposed by the interests of governments and companies, at a time when it did not require a large capital investment.
Today, it is different. Saudi Arabia prefers to put its money in technology companies like Uber rather than to invest it in more traditional sectors.
The idea that, back in 1990, users had some power that now has to be “restored” is an illusion. The Internet has never been free or democratic.
We are confusing the temporary lack of interest on the part of the companies and governments with a reality where there is an established constitutional order that protects rights and freedoms, whatever the costs, to limit monopolies by companies or governments.
This constitutional order never existed. Our freedom on the Internet was nothing more than a by-product of a business and underdeveloped surveillance models.
A plan for a true transmission of power would require much more than another ingenious protocol for the transfer of data; this kind of technocratic interventionism is what fuels populist anger around the world.
There is no digital empowerment without political empowerment, and the latter can only be achieved by conceiving the Internet not as a means or a tool, but as a set of infrastructures to facilitate life, work and cooperation.
There is a need for a policy for all infrastructures that covers issues related to its political economy, with the sharing of ownership and risks between different public and private sectors.
Only then will it be possible to focus on the more prosaic tasks of finding the platforms and protocols to give cohesion to the network.
If a new set of policies is not established, there will come a time when we are deprived of everything on the Internet, because it is owned by Mark Zuckerberg, Xi Jinping or Saudi Arabia.