The People Wide Web

The debate around Net Neutrality has taken an interesting spin of late. Just as foes to Net Neutrality have gotten closer to their goal of setting up tollways and traffic controls on the information superhighway, some drivers are beginning to build their own transportation system altogether.

Net Neutrality is a concept that has been the norm on the Internet since its inception: the idea that every website gets equal treatment by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But of course, media companies and the ISPs could conceivably benefit greatly if surcharges for access to higher bandwidth were allowed on the Net. For example, let’s say that Cable Company A offers priority bandwidth to Media Company X, allowing it to serve super high-def streaming video to users at lightning speed. However, Startup Company Z will then be obligated to compete against Media Company X for that bandwidth in order to provide the same quality service. Same goes for Blogger Y.

Fat chance of that. Indeed, given the pace at which media consolidation continues to go unchecked by regulators, were Net Neutrality abandoned, the Internet would quickly resemble something akin to how Network Television dominated communication in the years before high-speed Internet arrived.

And this is what concerns many people since a free, open web has so clearly promoted innovation. So far, the battle is not lost and Net Neutrality is still the norm. Nevertheless, some are creating back up plans.

This past week, BitTorrent, the people behind the popular torrent app uTorrent, announced they are exploring the creation of a new Internet which takes back control of the web and distributes access to websites across peer-to-peer networks.

Called Project Maelstrom, this torrent-based Internet would be powered by a new browser which would effectively rework the Internet into a much freer network with pretty much no gatekeepers.

Details are sparse at the moment, but essentially access to websites would be served as torrents, and thus not served from a single server. Instead, the sites would exist across the peer-to-peer network, in small, redundant bits living on people’s computers. Essentially, its the same technique used for torrent-based file sharing. When you try to access a site, your computer queries the torrent network and dozens of computers begin sending you the packets you need to rebuild the web page in question on your browser. And even as the web page is partially assembled, your computer then begins sharing what it already has with other people trying to access the site.

The result could likely be a much faster Internet, with much greater assurances of privacy. But technical questions remain and this does sound like it could take some time. But wow, what a revolution it would be.

Of course, this could get tricky to pull off. As you may have heard this week, the infamous torrent website Pirate Bay was taken down by authorities in Sweden this week. Pirate Bay serves up links to torrents allowing people to download everything from freeware applications to Hollywood movies that haven’t even been released yet and so has been targeted by law enforcement for years now. Even on today’s Internet, Pirate Bay could conceivably come back online at any time. But if the BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer Internet were realized, Pirate Bay would be back up instantaneously. Indeed, it would probably never come down in the first place. Same goes for Dark Net sites that sell everything from drugs to human beings, which have also been recently taken offline.

Bottom line is: Project Maelstrom is another example of how a free and open Internet is unlikely to ever go away. Question is, how much freedom is a good thing?

My own personal take is that taking back control of the Internet from media companies and ISPs would, on balance, be a great thing. Bad people do bad things in the physical world and that’s why we have never defeated crime 100%. As long as there is an Internet, there will be those that abuse it.

But even more importantly, innovation, freedom of speech and freedom to access information are core to advancing society. So I welcome Project Maelstrom.

So here’s a toast to the People-wide Web!

Uninventing Copyright

The recent hubbub about SOPA/PIPA and MegaUpload have reminded me of the wounded Black Knight in Monty Python’s the Holy Grail, who despite having lost several limbs, continues to fight. Yes, folks, the battle over copyright law is over. Big media lost, and biting at the public’s ankles isn’t going to change their fate.

Last week, I undertook a quest to remove all CDs from my home, adding them to my hard drive for eventual migration to Google Music or some other service. The idea of tossing that collection of hundreds of CDs, which took years and much money to accumulate, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But this is a new age, the media paradigm has shifted and the value of physical media objects is approaching zero. In fact, if you take just online services like Pandora, the value of a song tied to a piece of plastic is actually a negative value in my opinion. In today’s market, music (and increasingly video) is ubiquitous in the online environment to an extent that the supply variable is off the charts.

I’ve always been one to grow weary of a song after a dozen or so plays. I really don’t understand how someone could listen to a Classic Rock radio station, where you’re guaranteed to hear the same 100 tracks every day for the rest of your life. That reminds me of the Night Gallery episode where the hippy goes to hell and must endure the same track of Muzak for eternity.

Give me serendipity or give me death!

US Bandwidth Consumption:

All of this makes me really question the very premise of the copyright issue anyway, which has been based on the century-long period where music and film were “things” you had to buy in order to experience. If you think about it, vinyl and celluloid were what made commodities of our human desire for melody and stories…those things that had filled our evenings since we were striking sticks together in caves. I can’t emphasize it enough: the commodity of music and drama has been a very brief anomaly in human history.

And that period seems to be fast expiring.

Check out Frédéric Filloux’s article Piracy is part of the digital ecosystem for an interesting analysis of the where the media implosion stands.

I recently finished Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution where he explores an emerging future that is much more collaborative thanks to new energy and networking technologies. In his estimation, all information will be free. And it won’t only be media companies that will have to respond to this new paradigm. Researchers, technology companies, governments…everyone will have to change. Technology will make it impossible to make money on ideas in the future because secrets and monopoly can’t exist in a world where everyone can hack everyone else.

Wikipedia and digital commons are the memes of the future.

Anyway, whatever the case, the fact is as I wantonly tossed my last CD into the bin, I can say that I felt liberated. Viva la revolucion!