What is the Internet now?

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What is the Internet now, picture taken by NASA
What is the Internet now, picture taken by NASA

Warning! This page is a Work In Progress. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This means that you WILL find things that are not well written, totally correct or properly referenced. Also, lots of loosely threaded ideas. So bear with me.

I'm about to move to the countryside, and yet I am not scared to be isolated. There's certain assurance flying over my life decisions that states that, if there's Internet, everything will be alright.

But isn't the Internet changing too fast? How do we know it won't turn into another weapon of isolation the way urban life has?

I started to code when I was 13, it was 1998 and I had just entered the Internet through the big door: IRC and Newsgroups. Today, everything that I am interested and passionate about is somehow reflected on those first years of Internet exploration.

My activity in the ASCII-art community back then: my interest on free online culture movements now. My first coding attempts, focused on analyzing and generating human conversations on IRC channels: the five years I spent working on NLP projects after university. The anonymity, the freedom, the diversity: a constant in my life, online and offline, for more than twenty years.

So what is it about now? I have never had a career path, I've always thought of computing as a tool to fight for the things that I wanted. And yet after few years working in a consulting company for clients that - if it's true that they weren't too bad - I wasn't entitled to choose, now I see myself with a clear path towards pushing a true shift on the Internet.

And that's because those things, anonymity, freedom, diversity, have slowly faded out from the fabric, bit by bit, and I've only realized about it when everyone was learning it to be too late to change.

When I watched Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary that follows the encounter of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, his descriptive tale of the Internet really talked to me:

"I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there has never been anything in the history of man that's like it. I mean, you could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where, you know, they were sort of granted the same respect for their ideas and conversation, with experts in the field from another part of the world on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time."Edward Snowden

And I saw myself. I was one of those children, having anonymous discussions over IRC, reaching deeper, traveling further that I could ever dream. Publishing content on Geocities. Creating themed, diverse and unexpected communities through webrings.

Wake up. Let's travel few decades forward. Let's visualize what happened to all of that.

Our digital fingerprint

What happened to anonymity? Currently social networks are the center of our Internet; our Internet is a phonebook, a listing of personas. We talk to our friends, we share pictures and content, we have conversations, create and sign up to events through social networks and under a digital profile that we voluntarily created... Sorry, does this sound too repetitive? We all know this is how the Internet already looked like 10 years ago, if not more, and this is how many people thing still looks like.

However, those voluntarily created and managed digital profiles are not the real burden to our anonymity anymore. It is our digital fingerprint: the collection of metadata - timestamps, locations, searches, IPs, MAC addresses, browser information, sites, emails, devices or application level connections - what creates an incredibly intricate and detailed digital profile that uniquely identifies us. Who cares about the people that you say you know on Instagram, if there are better ways to know the friends that you actually know through detailed analysis of yours and others' metadata?

And you would be amazed on how many incredible ways of snooping on you new apps and services implement each day. In March 2020, a group of privacy researchers found out that more than 50 apps, including TikTok (the Chinese video clip social media platform that is most in these days), read the content of the clipboard every few key strokes. The password that you copied from your password manager, your bitcoin address, any personal message that you copied from your email, anything that has resided on your clipboard has been read. Wanna hear about ubiquity? Apple devices have something called universal clipboard, which allows contents copied on one device be available in the clipboard of a connected device. Now connect the dots.

Get out of Facebook, of Instagram and Twitter. Move away from a Google controlled email, use Nextcloud instead of Google Drive. And still: most of the sites that you will visit will be served to you from Amazon Web Services. Even using the federated web, the requested content will be often served from storage buckets, CDNs or even VMs from the biggest corporate clouds. Hashbase.io, a hosting service for P2P web, is hosted in Google Cloud. Now there's a single point of failure.

Every two years, Amazon silently publishes their transparency report. In the second half of 2019, Amazon said it received 1,841 subpoenas, 440 search warrants and 114 other court orders for user data. However, it seems like these reports are getting more and more obscure every year; for example, specific court orders to "remove user content" were first separated and counted apart. Then, those were simply removed. It is also funny to remember that, after the Snowden disclosures, companies quickly started disclosing government data demands, yet Amazon stayed reticent, being the last big tech to publish that information.

Echoes of diversity

I started getting shivers about Twitter few years ago.

For the last few years I have been extremely aware of how my Twitter feed radically changed every few months, both in shape and content. Going into Twitter felt like having a tl;dr abstract of myself structured into little pills to scroll up. It would be interesting as a self awareness experiment if only it reflected the truth about oneself, and not just willful perception. My Twitter feed was a faithful reflection of my ever-changing obsessions: from India to tech startup stuff, collaborative consumption and circular economy, later social and green entrepreneurship. Suddenly, as I came back from India, it was all about feminism, then comic art and fanzine, free culture. 15M born citizen movements, urban related activism and squat culture in Spain. Human rights, digital rights. Twitter for me has been single-themed for years.

Echo chambers are not a new thing, they've been a thing for ages. But seeing such a fast growth of movements online, groups so full of hate that transcend the digital space - or the thought space - and turn into real life-threatening dangers is becoming more and more common.

I have a personal tendency to obsession, which in this case has come as an asset: I tend to reflect a lot about the brain mechanics of rumination and how thoughts reinforce themselves by being replayed again and again. While obsessive thinking is sometimes the key to creative work and puzzle-solving, it can also be a rabbit hole into depression. Today's online echo chambers are in a social scale what depression and obsessive disorders are in a neural scale. People that experiences depression are more prone to rumination and repetitive thoughts of shame, anger, regret and sorrow. Similarly, a society that experiences economic and cultural crisis is prone to giving birth to radicalized and violent groups that feed on shame, anger, regret, sorrow.

A couple of days ago a friend sent me a very interesting piece about radicalization. It was an interview to Moussa Bourekba, a researcher in the field of violent radicalization in Europe and North of Africa. He draws the line between jihadism and the far right, explains how these movements are symbiotic and part of a same wave, although they present themselves as opposed. Both movements grow from a general feeling of discomfort and confusion, both movements use the same communication tactics. Both learn from each other, both are violent and militarized, both rooted in masculinity. Both movements see their ranks grow thanks to desperate and vulnerable people and through the same channels: Social networks, forums, videogames.

How current internet crashes diversity????

Cultural diversity: https://ancillarycopyright.eu/news/2020-02-04/eu-copyright-directive-and-its-potential-impact-cultural-diversity-internet

When I became aware of this, I started following people that thought differently to me (even people I disliked or whose ethics I despised) to radically step away from that very comfortable yet terrifying echo chamber. And that was even worse.

Amazon report: https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/30/amazon-government-demands-data/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAM_-jF5drknbrAYwi3ONvSwECZX_EMSrJmeaMX1cMVtXYnLwaI8eRfe4fzDoCsHd71n8H42G5xfxNwoXJNab9MwiMb1ICcWLrmwMWg_1Tq0qkPr7YLp021zzgeYVvu-PzgxHLm_BJ3el868cUlZ5jjjQo_uSW_zJeJH869OT8OwO