The Centralized Internet Is Inevitable

Leon Seibert/Internet cafe

On Wednesday, October 14th, Twitter locked the accounts of a White House press secretary and the New York Post, one of America’s largest tabloid newspapers. The accounts shared a story the Post ran on leaked emails which seemingly implicate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son in corruption. When users tried to share the story publicly or privately, they found a message informing them that their tweets could not be sent. Chinese users of Twitter mused on the feeling of déjà vu, as links to corruption stories sometimes vanish on Chinese social media apps like WeChat as well. For a moment, the paths of the Chinese and American internets once more converged.

You can only cross the Rubicon once—in an instant, the authority of Western newspapers was forever reduced. The editor-in-chief of a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton, owned by famous media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was granted no special social and legal privileges. The newspaper was revealed to be just another user. Journalistic authority granted it no protection from classification as ‘hacked material.’ If an email is leaked to the press and no one reads it, did it really leak?

Perhaps once Twitter became the place where journalists get their news, it was only a matter of time before Twitter, rather than editors-in-chief, decided which news was fit to print. As a profession, journalists have developed a slowly intensifying addiction to the site, spending countless hours a day on it. Until now, Twitter reciprocated their enthusiasm. The ‘blue check,’ a marker that an account has been verified as an authenticated and important user, is granted preferentially to journalists and media organizations.

The Role and Legitimacy of Journalism

What is remarkable about the New York Post’s lack of privilege is that journalists as a profession have enjoyed special legal and social protections since the start of the 20th century, partially due to being perceived as indispensable in maintaining an informed citizenry critical to democracy. The past 50 years have not been kind to this perception, as the justification has been eroded by numerous factors. Generation X is likely to be the last generation to believe in the ideals of journalism without reservation.

The most significant wind of change is the technological gale. This is apparent when examining the details of how the media industry adapted to becoming a producer of content, rather than the platform. Newspapers never sold stories; they sold pieces of paper that carried stories. A paywall might seem like a fine business model, but it erodes the moral justification for the special privileges given to journalists and media organizationshence the outrage when COVID-19 reporting found itself behind paywalls. Journalists make ends meet, barely, but at the cost of losing legitimacy. The pattern holds when thinking about clickbait journalism or pandering to an ever more ideological subscriber base.

Journalists’ ability to carry out their mandate or advocate on behalf of their own profession has been radically curtailed by two decades of layoffs. The number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2019. Numerous lines of evidence show that this number has fallen further in our time of pandemic. Were the circumstances of our media different, were the economy booming, and had the pandemic not wreaked havoc, perhaps journalists could have held out longer. No army wins a victory by wishing for better weather, however, and we can’t unsee the result of last week’s experiment.

One wonders why Twitter staff didn’t respect the traditional privileges of journalists. The actions of Twitter employees weren’t ignorant or unprofessional. They acted on well-honed human perceptions of the landscape of power. Such perceptions are revealed in what is done, not what is said, when the stakes seem high. While it is all too natural to view this event through the lens of electoral politics—the U.S. presidential election is only two weeks away, after all—this immediate context is ultimately less important than the fact that Twitter’s employees had the power to override the media, felt inclined to use it, and did so. Some would say that the New York Post is too populist, or too much of a tabloid, to be considered a ‘real’ newspaper with ‘real’ journalists. But this is said after the fact, after Twitter already decreed it such. And it is unlikely to be the last such decree.

If we could find the relevant committee in Twitter’s politburo-like bureaucracy—for which founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is best understood to be the main spokesperson—and we could ask them the question, they would naturally answer that they support authentic journalism. They would reiterate their opposition to fake news and election meddling. And having voiced this opposition, they couldn’t sit by and do nothing so close to the election! The moment of unseating journalists doesn’t happen when you propose a free society without them. Rather, it is when you realize that there is no particular reason to let journalists themselves define who is a real journalist. In the case of Twitter, the employees did so instead.

Empowering Bureaucracies More Than Individuals

Early proponents of the internet always conceived of it as transcending the physical world and its limitations. Even before the first public demonstration of computer networks, researchers in the field were predicting the development of a national computer public utility system. There is a long-standing collective dream of independent digital republics and empowered, autonomous, self-educated individuals. People wrote manifestos. An entire genre, cyberpunk, arose around this vision.

Though the seeds of this ideology existed even in the early development of the internet protocols, its primary expression was in the early 1990s, when the internet was very small and used primarily by technically proficient people. As the internet’s user base increased, it seemed plausible that the vision and intentions of these pioneers would shape the development of digital space, breaking the chokehold of centralized distributors of media and human knowledge.

But behind the scenes, the story was not so simple. Even the internet’s creators were at loggerheads about its ultimate purpose. The U.S. Department of Defense, whose research into network technology played a pivotal role in the internet’s creation, intended for it to be used in command and control infrastructure for military operations. Had this vision won out, American entrepreneurs might have sounded less like Sergey Brin or John Gilmore, and more like India’s Mukesh Ambani or China’s Jack Ma. As Ma was building up the e-commerce giant Alibaba, he was also a CCP member and ensured a close relationship with the Chinese state.

Since then, the majority of web traffic has come under the control of a few large players. In the realm of social media, Facebook and Twitter have come to dominate Europe and the Anglosphere; in Russia, VKontakte; in China, Qzone and other equivalents. In other domains of human activity, digital services companies have rapidly gained massive user bases and market share. Netflix competes with Hollywood. Amazon competes with everything from Walmart to the U.S. Postal Service.

In turn, these companies are effectively a tool of the political interests of states that control their regulatory environment, influence their human resources, or host their servers. Sometimes, the relationship turns direct: Google, Microsoft, Apple, and many others participated in the NSA’s PRISM mass surveillance program. Far from what the pioneers of the ‘90s envisioned, these developments haven’t decentralized society. Power has shifted around, but can now act in historically unprecedented ways.

Considered frankly, this trend reveals the internet to be a technology of centralization. One of the core functions of the internet is to record material of human interest in digital format. These records span everything from our trivial preferences and financial habits to the most intimate messages we send each other. With adequate analysis, this data can be used to predict user behavior. This information is not made available to us as individuals. Even if it were, it would not be the kind of information we could use. It’s only useful en masse—in other words, only insofar as it makes us legible and visible to centralized institutions. The rise of Amazon, Tencent, Facebook, or Twitter aren’t bugs in the system, but the natural result of its real logic.

This kind of information asymmetry has strong political implications: what is legible is eventually regulated. What would it take for individuals to gain a comparable information advantage? Imagine dozens of organizations as dedicated as WikiLeaks constantly publishing email chains and recordings of meetings and other closed-door happenings, as well as tracking the minutiae of public statements and the whereabouts of top personnel. Imagine teams of activist data scientists analyzing the data and producing reports. Compared to the amount of resources governments and large companies can dedicate to gathering and analyzing data, even these hypothetical efforts don’t come close.

However, even as the results come in, the dream of a decentralized internet persists. Most recently, the rising price of Bitcoin drove cryptocurrencies into the front and center. The dreamers of the decentralized internet now place their hopes in blockchain technology, which promises to break governments’ control of currency and the tech giants’ control of the internet. Many intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and investors, from Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz to World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, have staked their reputation, careers, and plans on this vision. Rather than accounting for strong trends to the contrary, these advocates continually push their promises further into the future.

China Stories Are America’s Mirror 

Before we turn back from humans to technology, let’s briefly digress to think about China. As a newly minted superpower, it also plays a surprising role as America’s Jungian shadow. Rather than doing the difficult legwork needed to think about a foreign country, perhaps even learn the language, we play a guessing game. At times, these guesses are insightful, and at other times paranoid. We suppose, we insinuate, and we theorize as to how China works, but we don’t really check.

China’s surveillance apparatus is often painted in Western media as an all-encompassing panopticon. We are warned to expect an absolute surveillance state with perfect access to technological tools like surveillance footage and online messaging and the corresponding perfect censorship and control. The reality, however, is messy. Surveillance has its limits, both in the data it gathers and in the incentives of the bureaucracy wielding it. So, what can we learn from the Western story? When someone speculates about something they don’t know, they often reveal what they quietly think about what they do know.

Such stories gain traction because, when freed from thinking about the U.S. in particular, readers find themselves thinking about technology and power. In America, we have a very finite list of thinkable conclusions, protecting us from anything too terrible in our future; but when thinking about China, anything is on the table. One of the dishes served is that no one expects Chinese hackers to challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or at least its surveillance and censorship apparatus. They certainly don’t lack the skill.

The missing hacker hero becomes more important the more one considers them. If the people of China are oppressed and the internet is a decentralizing technology, we should expect the Chinese internet to work in the favor of dissidents, rather than the government. Interestingly, this was the consensus 1990s view of how the technology would play out in China; much was made of VPNs that could bypass the Great Firewall. Yet today, the Chinese internet clearly works to favor the government—and importantly, we all know this to be the case. The technology empowers the user to a degree, but empowers the administrator even more.

It’s possible to imagine a world where hundreds of millions of people have entirely switched to private network communications. Perhaps in this world, the magnitude of the information asymmetry is reduced, but there is no reason to think it would be reversed. Governments and large companies will still have all of the information they have already harvested—they will already know more about us than at any point in history—and we will be as in the dark about them as ever.

As long as the user was anonymous, it was plausible to be active in cyberspace without having to consider entangling legal risks or physical safety. Titans of steel and flesh such as giant companies or police forces would be powerless to stop you. Who would build such anonymous software, however? Governments will not stand for encryption software without backdoors, so it won’t be built. Users will not stand for inconvenience, so commercial software will out-adopt open source standards. Commercially-built software will always come under pressure from the government. If it somehow escapes such pressure, it will adopt a role closer and closer to that of a government body, much as Twitter is doing.

Software arguments, while compelling in themselves, are ultimately superfluous. Just as the cloud is someone else’s computer, written software always runs on a computer built in a factory, and that factory stands in the jurisdiction of a government that will pursue national security. Hardware backdoors have been mandated by the U.S. and now the Chinese governments. Even if the user could be free, the computer owner never could. The world of bits was always standing on a world of atoms.

The centralizing trend that we have seen over the lifespan of the internet is not a fluke to be corrected as we learn to properly harness the power of this new technology. Rather, the internet cannot be anything but a centralizing force, so long as there are groups that are situated to disproportionately benefit from that which it renders visible. We should expect the hackers and cyber-visionaries to remain in the fringe, while the interests of governments and large companies dominate the use and development of web technologies.

The Geopolitics of Cyberspace  

“Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” John Perry Barlow, internet pioneer and panegyrist, declared to the world’s great powers in 1996. “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.” Nearly two and a half decades later, it is the great powers whose borders are reflected in cyberspace.

The China that exists in Asia rather than our imaginations is still very much a 20th century state. It is powered primarily not by advanced technology, but by party discipline and organization—paper-pushing not too dissimilar to that of the U.S. federal government of the 1940s. One tell is that China insists on party liaisons at all the large newspapers. Insisting on party liaisons at all major networks and communication companies will prove to be quite sufficient for states of the future.

China has its Great Firewall and Russia has its “Internet Iron Curtain.” But democracies differ only in how quickly, and under what narratives, they adopt similar measures. In July, India’s biggest company announced a radical vision for an Indian-made 5G network. Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, took the opportunity to dedicate the project to Atmanirbhar Bharat, or “self-reliant India.” It was a sign of loyalty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of carving out a space for India in a world dominated by American and Chinese tech giants. The announcement was overshadowed in Western media only thanks to a bigger story in India: the country’s ban of the popular TikTok app. Rather than forging a decentralized alternative, India is a latecomer to an ongoing revamp.

The EU has enacted laws such as the GDPR, strictly regulating the operation of internet companies. Even in the more hesitant U.S., a massive public campaign is pressuring tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to exercise more control over their platforms. When they do so, the call quickly turns to government regulation of this newfound power. After decades of conflict between utopian visions of cyberspace and the realities of centralized digital power, states and companies are creating new ideological tools to determine what the internet should look like.

A Thriving and Centralized Internet 

Should we assume, though, that such a world would be dystopian? When people envision decentralization, they often have the wrong picture. Many aspects of human life are better off centralized. Decentralization should not be equated with freedom and flourishing, unless there is a good plan to make it so.

In trying to understand and chart a course for the future, we might take inspiration from the centralizing effects of past technology. The printing press reduced the Catholic Church’s control over intellectual institutions. But it also paved the way for the standardization of language and for more direct control by state bureaucracies. Society was vastly more centralized in 1750 than it was in 1400. Through the modern lens, the benefits of the printing press vastly outweigh its costs, suggesting that we may be wrong to fear centralizing technologies in our own time.

Instead, we may be better off looking to see what institutions are best positioned to wield these technologies, and to what ends, and seek to ensure that they are put to good use. It isn’t out of the question that a reformed Twitter couldn’t do so. The epistemic commons of future societies will be shepherded by some kind of central institution. It then rests on us to imagine and build social technologies that could make this a positive outcome. The dream of the decentralized internet is dead, but hope for a future of unprecedented flourishing enabled by technology is very much alive.

Samo Burja is the founder of Bismarck Analysis, a political risk consulting firm. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @SamoBurja.