Konstantinos Komaitis is a veteran of developing and analyzing Internet policy to ensure an open and global Internet. He is currently with the New York Times’ Data Governance team. This article represents the views of the author.
Hello. My name is the Internet. I am… well l am not sure how old I am because people tend to think of my age through different milestones. Let’s just say I am of legal age to write this letter and, hopefully, be taken seriously. Now, you will ask me why I feel the need to write something like this and, more importantly, for whom; it is a valid question, but please bear with me. I will try to explain everything.
For a long time, I have felt the need to write something aimed at everyone who has used me, no matter for what purpose. I have even been meaning to say something to all of you who have never used me, and those who may have used me but decided to just disconnect. So, this post is actually addressed to everyone who has – at some point in their lives – uttered the word “Internet”.
Over the past few years, I have been close to a breaking point. I have felt the pressure imposed on me by commercial interests; I have been abused by some really bad people who have used me to spread misinformation and hate; I have been manipulated for political and social purposes; and, I have been used as a punching bag to promote various agendas. And, through all of this, I have endured the abuse and have resisted the lies and manipulation. But, to be honest with you, I am not sure for how much longer I can persist. Enough is enough. I am done!
Please do not consider this a threat. Rather see it as the reality; my everyday reality.
Since my creation I was considered a wonder; a ‘prodigy’ technology. Some regarded me as the vessel for the democratization of information and of communication; I was heralded as the promise to bring people out of poverty; I was the hope for educating people and exposing them to different cultures and ideas; I was seen as the main means for upholding human rights and exposing those who were denying them to populations and communities around the world. I was, as they say, the next best thing.
And, for a long, long time I was living up to this promise. In 2011, during the awakening of the people in the Middle East who decided to stand up to dictators and authoritarianism, I became a vessel for organizing and communicating. Contrary to what some people may believe, I was not responsible for the Arab Spring. People in the Middle East were responsible for that. I won’t take credit for it. But, I was there, standing next to them, offering my services. I was their ally! And, I felt proud and honoured to be able to help in any way I could.
Similarly, I was able to diffuse a lot of centralized structures and offer alternatives for people around the world. At least, in the beginning I was! I gave everyday people more tools to create and innovate. I became their agent. I provided them with equal opportunities to write, compose, produce and think big. I was– and frankly still am– the main and only reason that some companies even exist. I inspired other companies to push themselves and keep innovating. I was, admittedly, responsible for allowing some pretty questionable characters to think big. (I won’t lie– there is a part of me that regrets this a bit).
All these companies and the people behind them were celebrating me, at least in the beginning. That was before they turned their backs on me and forgot that the very reason they existed is because of me. Before they started centralizing and blocking everyone else out of the possibilities I create, so much that they became obstacles to future innovators and creators. They take and take and give nothing back.
You may think I sound dramatic; maybe I am. But, I think I need to be dramatic if some of this ends up registering with you all.
The people who designed me gave me an architecture that was open, decentralized, based on interoperable building blocks. These words may sound ambiguous and vague, but they are what distinguished me from other, much more rigid networked technologies, like the telephone. Given that I don’t have a center of control,nobody is, or really can be, in charge of me. In theory, anyone with a computer can engage with me, in the sense they can join my network of networks. Part of my charm is that, when doing so, all these people do not have to ask for anyone’s permission. My only requirement is that they speak my language – the Internet protocol (IP). That’s it! Nothing more; nothing less! And, as long as they do that, any idea, no matter how crazy or outlandish, is possible.
Therefore it is frustrating when I see these big companies trying to mess with my charm by locking people into their services and telling them what they can and cannot do. It saddens me that peoples’ ideas are these days subjected to the whims of white, privileged tech bros who seek profits above all else. I am not opposed to people making money; let’s be honest here, my design really encourages economies of scale! But, there must be some balance; and, that balance is broken(?).
I became quite hopeful when I realized that governments were taking notice of all of these issues! Things were getting out of hand and someone needed to step in. To be fair, civil society groups – at least some of them – and many average people have always fought for me. But, that has been an uphill battle with small wins. Something more drastic was required. Someone had to step in and strong arm the people who seemed to be taking advantage of me. Governments of the world could do that.
I knew that not all governments would be helpful. Remember when I told you about my decentralized structure? Well, this doesn’t sit well with every government out there. Authoritarian governments hate it; actually, they don’t hate it – they fear it! For this reason, early on in my evolution, some of them started erecting boundaries. One of them built a massive, invisible firewall that disabled much of my capabilities. It put a break on my potential and I was upset not to be able to serve the people of that country. Others, for different reasons altogether, sought other ways to undermine me: some of them started shutting me down when things got pretty rough for them; others started filtering the way I was carrying information; for others, it would be much easier to use me as a weapon against others.
They did not do this alone. Some huge companies helped them by building closed, commercial structures on top of me and pretended they were “the Internet”. They helped to drive whole countries to the brink of disaster. Yet, in all that, I still resisted partly because I knew I had the support of democracies. I knew that my ability to “democratize” was another, useful tool in the toolbox of democracies. I trusted they would defend me; they would come to my rescue.
In reflection, I think I was mistaken. My mistake was that I trusted that current democracies all share the same basic democratic values. I forgot the possibility of what the German political scientist Karl Loewenstein termed “militant democracy”: the idea that democracies can deny basic democratic freedoms to those who reject basic democratic values. I forgot that, even for them, I am just a means to an end! I am not the end. These democracies need to understand that when they try to attack the problems that people used me to build, in essence, they attack me, and injure me more gravely than I can easily recover from.
So, here I am now, trying to survive a wave of “reforms”. Everybody claims to have my best interest at heart; but it seems they only care about themselves and disregard what this might do to me. Ironically, some of the laws that are coming out of democracies are inherently undemocratic: they attempt to use me to undermine privacy, freedom of speech or the security of the people who use me or will use me in the future. And, in doing that, they seek to change much of my design and potential. They want to turn me into a tool for their own control. They are trying to find ways to insert controls into my architecture that protect their power.
Why else would they seek to erect boundaries and undermine my global nature? Why are they trying to close me down and make innovation contingent on local values and cultures? Why do they pass regulations that attempt to slice me into smaller parts, which, in the end, may not be able to talk to one another?
I am not sure what my future is. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to stay hopeful. I know that my design can withstand a lot of adversity. I mean, look at what humanity went through with the most recent pandemic. I proved to everyone that I was ready for it, unlike many governments which were not. However, the more governments and big companies undermine me, the more likely it is that I will break. Or, fundamentally change such that regular people can’t build their own new stuff with me or imagine new ways to do things.
I was born out of collaboration between many different people, companies and governments, with many different ideas, values and backgrounds. Now, even my so-called ‘custodians’ cannot agree on what I am and how they should collaborate.
I am asking you, therefore, when you speak on my behalf or when you propose policies and rules that affect me, to think about my nature and my potential. I am asking you to give me the opportunity to keep helping people find and build their own power and their own futures, so they can truly expand what is possible for all of humanity.
Konstantinos Komaitis is a veteran of developing and analysing Internet policy to ensure an open and global Internet. Konstantinos has spent almost ten years in active policy development and strategy as a Senior Director at the Internet society. Before that, he spent 7 years as a senior lecturer at the university of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, where we was researching and teaching Internet policy. Konstantinos is a public speaker having talked at many events around the world, including a TedX talk, and a writer having written for various outlets including Brookings, Slate, TechDirt, EuroActive. He holds two Master degrees and a doctorate and he is the author of a book on domain name regulation. He also co-hosts the “Internet of Humans Podcast”. His personal website is: www.komaitis.org.