In 1996 John Perry Barlow, cofounder of internet rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote “A declaration of the independence of cyberspace.” It begins: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Barlow was reacting to the US Communications Decency Act, an early attempt to regulate online content, which he saw as overreaching. But the broad vision he put forward of a free and open internet controlled by its users was one that many internet pioneers shared.
Fast-forward a quarter-century and that vision feels naïve. Governments may have struggled to regulate the internet, but new sovereigns have taken over instead. Barlow’s “home of Mind” is ruled today by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu—a small handful of the biggest companies on earth.
Yet listening to the mix of computer scientists and tech investors speak at an online event on June 30 hosted by the Dfinity Foundation, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, it is clear that a desire for revolution is brewing. “We’re taking the internet back to a time when it provided this open environment for creativity and economic growth, a free market where services could connect on equal terms,” says Dominic Williams, Dfinity’s founder and chief scientist. “We want to give the internet its mojo back.”
Dfinity is building what it calls the internet computer, a decentralized technology spread across a network of independent data centers that allows software to run anywhere on the internet rather than in server farms that are increasingly controlled by large firms, such as Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud. This week Dfinity is releasing its software to third-party developers, who it hopes will start making the internet computer’s killer apps. It is planning a public release later this year.
Rewinding the internet is not about nostalgia. The dominance of a few companies, and the ad-tech industry that supports them, has distorted the way we communicate—pulling public discourse into a gravity well of hate speech and misinformation—and upended basic norms of privacy. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems.
There is an economic problem too. The effective monopoly of these firms stifles the kind of innovation that spawned them in the first place. It is no coincidence that Google, Facebook, and Amazon were founded back when Barlow’s cyberspace was still a thing. [Continue reading…]