The promises of the Internet and shattered myths of the web – Part I

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. Paul Valery’s sentence[1] seems to have been intended to capture the sense of unease frequently associated with the Internet. The qualitative promises (regarding quantity there is already too much) of a universal web based upon standardisation (open standard) and neutrality,[2] appear to increasingly come to nothing as a result of the restrictions on free access to content, the temptation to establish central control, the poor reliability of some sources, the intrusiveness of explicit and hidden advertising and a number of other unpleasant phenomena, especially from the user’s point of view.

What were (and are) these promises? They can be found in a few lines written by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the fathers of the Internet: …we want the Web to reflect a vision of the world where everything is done democratically, where we have an informed electorate and accountable officials. To do that we get computers to talk with each other in such a way as to promote that ideal”. [3]

The result of the synthesis of information theory (the idea of a ‘distributed network’ developed for military purposes by Paul Baran at the beginning of the ‘60s and Ted Nelson’s hypertext), information technology (the Transmission Control Protocol and the domain name system)[4] and the instances of libertarianism of which Berners-Lee is still a firm believer, the web soon became the main channel of access to information and of free expression of individual thought and political debate.[5]

Even from a logic-formal point of view it is difficult to exert hierarchical or centralised pressure on the web: the aforementioned Paul Baran’s ‘distributed network’ stated that no node was more important than others, but that each of them occupied the same level in an entirely flat hierarchy.[6] Arpanet, the true predecessor of the Internet, was developed around this model.[7]

The global communication system, which was designed to guarantee the survival of the American defence system in the event of a soviet military attack[8] and became operative in 1969, had no central control and must have been greatly appreciated by the young researchers training in the climate of student protest. During the 80s access to the military Arpanet network was given to the National Science Foundation and gradually extended for the consultation of school and university institutions.[9]

The birth of the first commercial providers followed soon after and a military ‘idea’ was subsequently applied to the most revolutionary project of the end of the twentieth century.

Yet the winds have changed. News of a far less libertarian nature appears with increasing frequency on the web, questioning the hopes in which we had  perhaps somewhat  ‘naively  become accustomed to believe.

One of the earliest warnings came once again from Berners-Lee who, in November 2010, complained about the increasing risk that some of the premises on which the Internet is founded would be compromised due to economic and political interests.[10] Despite the abundance of evidence and the strong sense of civic contribution embodied by his ideas, things have not improved.

On the contrary. The list of the rights promised by the Internet, and that in the course of twenty years have been challenged, is a lengthy one and it is likely that the attempts to limit them, dictated by economic conditions, political opinions and moral intents, are doomed to multiply in the future. The sense of insecurity deriving from these constant and repeated threats to the freedom of internauts depends on the fact that, from many points of view, Internet is still in a kind of Far West where the rules of the real world  only apply up to a certain point and there are thousands of systems to work around them. And this is something that many passionate defenders of digital liberty are not willing to give up.

So the rights promised by the Internet are increasingly taking on the physiognomy of shattered myths. The follow-up to this paper, takes, without any claim to completeness or unassailable rigour, a stroll through these myths and the ruins that their collapse creates throughout cyberspace.

– To be continued –

[1] The sentence is attributed to Arthur C. Clarke and to contemporary poets Mark Strand (USA) and Ivan Tresoldi (Italy)

[2] See Berners-Lee T, Long Live the web: a call for continued Open Standard and Neutrality,

[3] See Isn’t it semantic?, Brian Runciman’s interview with Berners-Lee (2006). The text also appears in the collective volume Leaders in Computing: Changing the Digital World published by the British Computer Society in 2011:

[5] Again Berners-Lee, during the speech held on April 18, 2012 at the 21st International World Wide Web Conference in Lyon: «If our freedoms on the Web are threatened or abused by repressive government policies (SOPA, PIPA, Hadopi) pushed forward by business and industry lobbies, one should not forget that the Web is only one existing communication media in the democratic public space, not unique. The web is a technology, not a right or a freedom, even if it becomes the dominant medium of exchange of ideas between individuals of infinite tools: blogs, emails, chat, social networks… In the Arab-Muslim countries, the Web has played the role of a facilitator by its tools, allowing a rapid and massive mobilisation of protesters in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli, but never made the revolution. A revolution is not made with machines, but by the men who are behind».

[6] Today’s Internet is no longer Baran’s network, as most of the nodes – including users like us – are ‘terminals’,  connected to the network and linked to a limited and controlled number of servers (star-like connection).

[10] Berners-Lee T, Long Live the web: a call for continued Open Standard and Neutrality,