One of my favourite visual representations of the internet is from the late 90s: a snapshot of internet service providers around the world. The image is dazzling – a constellation of glowing nodes, too many to count.
This image is more than just a visual representation – it’s also a metaphor for the internet’s early fabric and ambitions. The nodes are distributed and equal in size. Power online is decentralised.
But today, about two decades later, this map is no longer an apt representation.
Since that 1999 snapshot, the internet’s decentralised nature has diminished and its status as a global public resource is under threat. In the 21st century, a handful of tech giants with massive sway and reach are consolidating power, playing the parts of gatekeeper and rule-maker online.
As a result, the internet looks less and less like a constellation. Instead, it is starting to resemble maps from centuries past, when empires ruled vast swaths of land, engulfing independent villages and smaller kingdoms. Think the Roman Empire in the second century. Or the British Empire in the 19th.
We’re witnessing a new age of empires online – a development that clashes with the internet’s original decentralised nature – and threatens everything from privacy to inclusion and equality online.
The internet was built as a level playing field – a platform where creation was as routine as consumption. But this open internet quickly encountered an adversary: Internet Explorer. By the start of the 21st century, accessing important content on the web all but required Microsoft’s browser. Internet Explorer had 98 per cent market share at its peak.
On a platform meant to distribute power equally, Microsoft created a monopoly. In many ways, Internet Explorer became the internet’s first empire.
But the internet’s first empire eventually crumbled. With their web under threat, users responded. A movement emerged, championing alternative browsers and open web standards. Decentralisation won.
We’re now two decades removed from the Internet Explorer monopoly. And the power dynamic online has shifted again.
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The internet today is increasingly shaped by a small collection of digital giants: Amazon. Apple. Facebook. Google. Even if these companies’ intentions are good, the amount of control they exert conflicts with the internet’s best nature.
Digital empires shrink the internet’s potential for individual opportunity and creation.
Last year, Mozilla carried out research in emerging markets to unpack new users’ relationships with the internet. We encountered a startling mindset in East Africa – for many users, the internet was indistinguishable from Facebook. The internet didn’t exist outside of this singular social network.
Facebook acts as a walled garden, shepherding users into a small corner of the internet. As a result, Facebook sets the rules – for content creation, consumption and sharing.
Digital empires, much like their 19th century counterparts, make it hard for people to have agency and seize opportunity.
For example, today’s app economy, dictated by a tiny number of players like the App Store and Google Play, creates a divide between the creators and consumers – or, the winners and the losers.
Recent research by UK firm Caribou Digital shows that most developers outside the US find it almost impossible to reach a global audience – the app stores are hard for new entrants in places like Kenya or Brazil to break into. Furthermore, almost all countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are ‘importers’ in the app economy.
The result is a colonial-like trade flow. Resources are extracted from emerging markets in the form of clicks and eyeballs, and the richer countries reap the rewards. It’s a one-sided flow – and app developers in emerging markets struggle spectacularly to find a foothold. Local developers simply cannot compete. This all leads to a dearth of local online content – and a dependence on the monopolies.
As we live more of our lives online – and as billions more people become connected – digital empires have the potential to become even more entrenched. What we need now is another push for decentralisation. Another movement like we had in the 90s.
And there has been positive progress: net neutrality victories in the US and India; fierce resistance to Free Basics, Facebook’s zero-rating initiative; and global opposition to mass surveillance carried out by governments and profit-minded companies.
We need to make the health of the internet a mainstream issue. And we need to take action – through advocacy, education, code and public policy.
That’s how we defend the internet’s best nature: decentralised and free from empire.