Internet: From Plural and Collaborative to Monopolistic and Restrictive

From its origins, the Internet was conceived as a collaborative, ecosystem, self-sustainable, participatory, distributed and accessible network to all humanity; a model that materialized the dream of an inclusive, diverse and plural society through technology.

Although, technologically speaking, the Internet continues to maintain the guiding principles of its founding, it has ceased to be a diverse space over time and has become a structure for the accumulation of power, reaching worrying levels of concentration that compromise the original spirit the great global information network was founded with.

Why is the current Internet not like the original Internet?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B

Although the Network still uses the same TCP/IP protocol that made the Arpanet project possible, and is still essentially about communicational processes, the Internet that we currently use, and that the new generations are getting to know, is completely different in its shape, background, applications, devices, processes, nodes and structure.

It is important to remember that the Internet has no owner, no beginning or end, there are no more important nodes than others and anyone who wants to may join, the possibility of creating a website is open and universal, just like acquiring an IP address or a domain. In the early years of the network, this free, democratic and inclusive model generated an explosion of sites and diverse contents. Universities, libraries, museums, governments, embassies, organizations, businesses, companies and individuals created their own space on the network to share information and exchange experiences with the world, thus creating a diverse and heterogeneous exploratory adventure of access to information.

A Network Focused on a Few

By the end of the 1990s, none of the available services on the Internet exceeded 5% of the total global traffic, and by 2009 none reached 10%. But by 2019, Netflix alone accounted for 15% of global traffic; YouTube, for 11.4%; the conglomerate of all Google services accumulated about 18% and Facebook, along with WhastApp, and Instagram, reached 11% of all Web traffic. This means that by 2019 approximately, 45% of the total Internet traffic is concentrated in 3 (North American) companies, a figure that by 2022 might exceed 50%, all the above is based on official figures from Alexa (Amazon) and comparative studies published by the Statistas portal and by The Global Internet Phenomena Report.

In summary, almost half of the generated Internet traffic flows through only three companies, all of them originating in the same country, which constitutes a dangerous concentration of services that significantly distorts the principle of diversity that originally inspired the network. Those times when users visited dozens of web pages with multiple services in the same session, in a kind of free and spontaneous navigation, seem to be disappearing to give way to a hegemonic consumption of services concentrated in a very limited number of platforms.

A Frivolous Network of Selfies and Fake News

While the knowledge and information network continues to exist, the content that takes the lead is neither in libraries or museums, since in general terms, social media – along with its frivolous publications and Fake News circulating through its algorithms – became the main consultation and traffic sources for Internet users; even for many people, the only Internet they use is Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, rarely using browsers, or in many cases, not even using them at all.

A Network of Local Networks

One of the main characteristics of the Internet we use nowadays is that most of the traffic consumed by users is actually local traffic. This is because the big data generators (Netflix, Google, Facebook, etc.) install a type of data centers, subsidiary centers – called CDNs- for the redistribution of data at the Internet providers’ headquarters. These centers host exact and continuously updated copies of the information available on their main servers.

Thus, when a user watches a movie on Netflix or a video on YouTube, it is stored on a local server near the user’s city, not in California, and the traffic it generates does not flow out of the provider’s private network. According to official figures from Akamai, 57% of the average traffic consumed by users in 2017 was local and did not flow out to international networks, and it is estimated that this figure will exceed 69% by 2022.

A video network

Thinking that videos would be played on the Internet during the 1990s seemed like a utopia, an almost impossible technological issue to solve. However, by the early years of the 21st century, videos already accounted for 5% of total network traffic, and by 2018, 57.7% of the total traffic generated on the network corresponded to video, approximately 30% being distributed by U.S.-based platforms.

We may say that the Internet has become a Video Network, a type of content that is undoubtedly the new king of cyberspace. It is not only Netflix and YouTube; social media -such as Facebook and Instagram- are increasingly focusing on the production and distribution of video.

There is little left from those early HTML steps that only carried text and occasional photos. Now virtually every content available on the web in any form involves video.

A Mobile and Portable Network

In its beginnings, the Internet was a network of fixed points and connections, either by telephone or by sophisticated cables; essentially, offices, homes and cafes were the main points of connection to the network par excellence. This trend changed with the launch of Smartphones; during the first years of this century, mobile connections did not reach 10%, but they exceeded 20% by the second decade, and according to Amazon estimates, mobile networks will surpass fixed networks in traffic by the beginning of the third decade, once the 5G is consolidated.

Nowadays, people have Internet in their pockets, a nomadic, portable and mobile Internet, which accompanies all daily activities and has a permanent presence in people’s lives, whether in a bus, a coffee shop, the park, the street and something that seemed impossible: airplanes.

A Convergent, Multi-platform Network of Things

The link between computer and Internet was indissoluble during the last century; very few devices other than a traditional computer were able to connect to the Internet. With the passage of time, the phenomenon of digitization allowed virtually all devices to be computerized, and this meant that many of them are now connected to the Internet, some simply as human user interfaces and others autonomously fulfilling specific tasks they were designed for, which is why we share a network with other people and things, i.e. it is no longer just a social network for communication between people.

A Censored and Government-Controlled Network

Authoritarian regimes -such as Cuba, Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, Sudan or Syria- have become a thorn in the side of the free flow of information and content on the Internet, and this phenomenon may be characterized as an accumulation of barriers and geo-localized filters that restrict the open and spontaneous flow of information, turning the Internet into an instrument for official propaganda in many countries.

A Boots and Robots Network

If we focus on the information that is distributed over the Internet, whether emails, publications on websites and blogs, news, among many other sources, we find that, according to a report presented in February 2017 by the security consultant, Imperva, 51.8% of this information has been produced by boots or automated algorithms (robots), and only 48.2% comes from human sources. In the case of automated content, the same study concludes that around 28.9% has an illegal purpose, such as spamming, hacking accounts, stealing data and distributing fake news.

The foregoing calls us to understand that we are facing a network plagued by automatic information, much of it irrelevant, full of junk, inaccurate and ill-intentioned information.

In conclusion, we are currently navigating a highly concentrated network, which, although it should not belong to anyone in particular, traffic and content are actually concentrated in three large economic groups of North American origin, while the content consumed by users is increasingly frivolous, and video is emerging as the king of the digital jungle.

The network ecosystem is nowadays composed of many automated contents in a connectivity structure that may be defined as portable, mobile and convergent, shared with devices and things, where some features of its original collaborative dimension are still preserved.

It is safe to say that very little remains of that plural, diverse and experimental network, which is now concentrated in a few market participants.