The Internet: past and future
Gabba Dabba Doo!
The development of the Internet happened so quickly that some politicians were publicly embarrassed by making completely defensible statements.
Throughout the 1980s, Sen. Albert Gore Jr.1 was a leading proponent of federal investment in information networks and the transformation of ARPANET to a public system. This was capstoned by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, sometimes known as the Gore Bill. The bill funded the development of NCSA Mosaic (now Firefox), as well as general technology infrastructure.
Yet by 1999, Al Gore’s statement “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” was considered so ludicrous and preposterous that it became a late-night talk-show staple. The suggestion that a politician, especially one who was only 50, could have made a substantial impact towards something as established as the Internet was too ludicrous to consider.
In 2006, Sen. Ted Stevens gave another speech about the internet that quickly found its way to comedy routines:
They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
Once again, this was fairly accurate at a high level in 2006. Yes, “net neutrality” and “network QOS” are different. Yes, those differences are important if you’re writing legislation. But at a high level regarding network congestion this is completely accurate. I was dealing with nightmares from go/bloodbath years later2.
Internet companies have become very good at hiding it from the end-user today (through POP caching servers), and perhaps the Year of Zoom Video Calls3 has demonstrated that a decade of infrastructure spending has solved the issue for all practical purposes.
But fundamentally, the Internet is still a series of tubes. Not just one series; a network of various separate series of tubes.
The governance of the internet has not changed substantially in the past decades. Which leads us to the question of the future of the internet.
As that is too sprawling a topic to discuss in one blog post, we will start with a much narrower question: will Gab.com be a part of it? To start, I must note that if you’re not on Gab, you’re not missing much.
However, it is fairly cheap to run such a website; there is probably already a critical mass of paid customers to sustain it for the foreseeable future. And despite what some activists may claim, I see no evidence Gab4 is violating United States law5.
Yet there are still people that want Gab offline. How would a cabal6 get them off the internet?
The first answer is “disable their DNS records”. DNS (Domain Name System) is how your computer translates from “gab.com” to “talk to that computer over there”. This was tried and is futile; there are sufficient American registrars that operate under the principle of neutrality. In other words, they will sell any domain to any person unless it is forbidden under United States law. With hundreds of top-level domains and thousands of domain resellers, there will always be someone to operate DNS.
A more interesting approach is to break peering. The internet isn’t a dump truck, it is a series of tubes. Those tubes are called autonomous systems, or just “network providers”. There are a lot of them (tens of thousands) but only a few hundred are large enough to matter here. If they present a united front, perhaps any AS that hosts gab.com can be kicked off the internet.
Once again this will fail for political reasons. Many Russian AS networks allow blatant criminal behavior - so long as the victims are not Russian citizens. A variety of other Eastern European countries also allow effectively anything. Without a new Iron Curtain, any embargo is completely futile. And there is nowhere to put that Iron Curtain. It seems certain that Poland or Hungary7 would allow a site like Gab to exist, and the European Union will not stand for a partial blockade8 of its citizens.
By process of elimination, this leaves “the community collapsing to infighting” as the only way Gab will not be a part of the future internet. The community is surely ripe for this; apart from love of Trump (and in many cases, being banned from Twitter) there is little holding them together. Although, if Trump ever does launch his own network, presumably Gab will become a backwater.
We note for the historical record that any similarities between the name “Al Gore” and the word “algorithm” are pure coincidence.
go/bloodbath was the most common shortlink for the internal Google dashboard showing internal packet loss. Connections between regions with packet-loss were color-coded red. There was always a lot of red at low network priorities.
An Infinite Jest inspired construction - better to call 2020 that than the Year of COVID. Infinite Jest was famous the day it was published, and still is largely known by people who haven’t read it; I have tried to read it twice (plus a third try on audiobook) and have never finished it. However, the mass of words in it certainly includes some quotable quotes.
If you want a different hypothetical, look at Kiwifarms. While I suspect they are violating US law, I doubt I could convince a county attorney that they could convince a jury. Your mileage may very.
While the Internet is super-national in some important ways, most websites that operate in the United States (and are not multi-national corporations) are domiciled there, and are only concerned about the law of the United States. A significant number of US websites simply disabled access from Europe in response to GDPR concerns.
Perhaps they are violating Galactic Law and allow material obtained through illegal use of a Time Machine to be posted. But every court in America knows that Time Machines don’t exist, so that is an academic concern.
The United States is an exception due to its size and de-centralized government structure, but in most countries we can simply assume the large telecoms will operate in concert with the national government. In particular, we can assume this of Viktor Orban's Hungary.
While the EU might allow (or, more accurately, assume control of) a blockade against a network provider enabling a criminal organization, they surely will not do so for a minnow of a social network. “Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales!” - A Man For All Seasons.