The internet operates on a revolutionary principle, underpinned by a revolutionary principle, overlaid by a revolutionary principle. Is it, therefore, revolutionary?
The revolutionary principle the internet runs on is this: the “end-to-end” principle, which states that any person using the internet can communicate with any other person on the internet without getting any third party’s permission. If you want to connect to my webserver, you simply connect to it: you don’t need to pay a long-distance charge, or ask your ISP to turn on the “web” feature. When someone invents another way of communicating, like Skype or Bittorrent or the Interplanetary File System (which is a real thing that you should really go look up), you can start using that right away to talk to anyone else who’s using it – no permission from the phone company required.
This is revolutionary. It replaces the principle of “circuit switching” in which all connections needed to be mediated through a central authority – AT&T – and only one kind of communications – voice – was permissible. Other “features” in the system, like the ability to send faxes, or plug in a modem, or connect an answering machine, or even to use a device called the “Hush-a-Phone” (a plastic cup that fit over the phone’s receiver) were licensed by AT&T for a fee. You may recall that at one time, the “feature” of Caller ID cost extra – this would be like your email provider charging extra to see who the message was from before you opened it.
The revolutionary principle of end-to-end changed telecoms forever. It let people build new, undreamt-of services atop the phone network, and then services atop those services, until the phone network itself was outgrown by the internet, replaced with fiber cables that merely carry the odd phone call, which is a relic of the past bobbing along in a raging torrent of data.
Computers operate on a revolutionary principle. The “Universal Turing Machine” describes the underlying theoretical architecture of every computer you use today, and it describes a system for building a computer that can compute anything. Any program that can be expressed in symbolic logic can be executed on any computer. Modern computers may run the program in an eyeblink and older computers may labor for centuries over the same code, but given enough time, all computers can run all programs.
This is revolutionary. It replaces the bygone practice of building special-purpose “calculating engines” that were engineered and built to solve a single kind of problem: actuarial tables, ballistic tables, census computation.
The revolutionary principle of universal computing changed the destiny of humanity. The fact that we use the same computers to power every kind of application from medical implants to cars to phones to voting machines means that any improvement made to computers for any application improves computers for every other application. When you wonder at how quickly and how far computers have come in our lifetimes, this is the fact to keep in mind: no matter what your field of endeavor, you benefit from improvements in computing, and thus there is no end to the energy and resources available for making computers better and better and better.
Modern encryption is a revolutionary principle. While humanity has made ciphers to keep its messages secret since the time of the Caesars, the application of universal computers to cryptography, combined with fundamental breakthroughs in mathematics, has produced a family of reliable scrambling systems that work so well that even modestly powerful computers can, in an eyeblink, encrypt a file so thoroughly that all the computers built and all the computers that ever will be built will never be able to guess the key needed to descramble it.
Universal computers can run every program, including the ones that do the unbreakable scrambling and descrambling. Universal networks can carry any message from anyone to anyone, including the scrambled messages that can never be unscrambled without permission.
This is revolutionary.
Is the internet revolutionary?
It is a necessary but insufficient factor for effecting revolution.
States are powerful. States have police, armies, massive budgets, the power to compel cooperation from telecoms providers and tech companies, and the power to break down your door and seize your devices or sneak in when you’re out at work and attach keyloggers to them. They have unblinking eyes, thanks to the ability to rotate shift after shift after shift into the surveillance monitoring stations. They can watch perfectly, waiting for their adversaries to make a single slip.
The best encryption, the fastest computers, the most open networks, will not make you comfortable living in an autocratic, corrupt state. You and your radical friends will eventually make a mistake and be rolled up by state thugs, or blacklisted, or blackmailed, or publicly discredited. The same computers, networks and encryption that you use to defend yourself from the state also defends it from you, allowing it to keep secrets you can’t brute-force, to coordinate its agents at the speed of light, to surveil you from a thousand networks.
To evade this all-pervading power, you have to be perfect. To defeat your evasion, the state need merely find a moment’s imperfection in your operational security.
Security favors attackers. An earth-moving machine can build a wall, or knock it down. The wall builders need to build a perfect wall. The wall-destroyers need only to find one place of weakness. Give the same tools to attackers and defenders, and the attackers will win, given enough time.
The internet is not revolutionary.
If you live in a repressive, corrupt state where the reins of power are in the hands of ruthless, greedy elites, the mere use of the internet is insufficient to keep you safe from oppression and retaliation. Even if you escape and go into exile, the internet will not keep your family and friends safe as you communicate with them.
You can’t use the internet to obviate the need to effect political change.
But the internet can be used by revolutionaries.
There is no substitute for living in a democratic, legitimate, responsive state that uses best evidence and honest debate to arrive at policy, where officials are accountable and the rule of law is intact.
The internet – a universal network with universal computing endpoints that can send and receive secure messages – is a tool that can crack open a space in even the most totalitarian of regimes, a place where reformers and revolutionaries can organize, mobilize, and fight back. It’s a forum for whispering dissidence in secret and for blasting the shameful secrets of the powerful at full volume.
The theory of change that goes, “We will walk away from politics and use the internet to evade state oppression” is a dead letter. It always has been.
But the theory that goes, “The internet will let us organize to hold the government to account, to topple the corrupt, to rally the honorable and expose the wicked” – that theory has never been more important.
The internet is not a revolutionary technology, but it makes revolution more possible than ever before. That’s why it’s so important to defend it, to keep it free and fair and open. A corrupted, surveillant, controlled internet is a place where our lives are torn open by the powerful, logged, and distorted. A free, fair, and open internet is how we fight back.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
This article and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.