29 June 2021

The internet was built as an open and permissive network in which computers can communicate with each other – not for any particular ideological reasons, but simply because this was most practical. Now, however, both politicians and commercial forces are changing the open

Fredrik Lindeberg.
Fredrik Lindeberg.

Image of the internet

In his thesis, Coordinating the Internet: Thought styles, technology and coordination, Fredrik Lindeberg gets to grips with several questions: What is the internet, actually?, Who controls it?, and Who can decide what the internet is? Or has it, in fact, been intentionally constructed to be uncontrollable?

Many questions are fundamentally questions of power, something that was discussed in detail at the thesis defence, held on 15 June 2021. Most people agree that a dictatorship controlling the internet is wrong, but how do we respond when a democracy tries to do so? Use of the internet affects nearly everything, and any political control of it would involve extensive and deep exercise of power.

“Maybe the internet is so important and affects us so much that it is perfectly reasonable to prevent one or a few people from controlling it, to any major degree. Personally, I lean towards that opinion”, says Fredrik Lindeberg.

Huawei’s new IP

Graphic illustration of the internet.Graphic illustration of the internet. The deeper blue colour, the more contacts in the networks.

When the internet was constructed, the ability to exert central power and control was not part of the structure, and it was not possible, for example, to close down parts of the network. This was originally done mainly for technical reasons – open systems are easiest to develop and improve – but as time passed this openness has become an ideology.

Fredrik Lindeberg calls this thought style, or perspective, the interoperability thought style, and points out that it dominated completely until about 20 years ago. After this, openness and decentralisation have been challenged by both a market thought style – in which companies attempt to earn money on the internet – and a bureaucratic thought style, in which politicians and others in power discuss legislation and regulation of the internet.

One example is the proposal from the Huawei company for a new internet protocol, the “new IP”, which would make it possible, among other things, to exclude certain users from the internet. IP protocols are the communication protocols used to transfer information on the internet, where two versions, IPv4 and IPv6, currently dominate.

“The bureaucracy thought style may have completely different starting points and objectives. It’s important to remember this. It may be a dictatorship that is trying to control the internet, or it may be democratic states that are trying to eliminate miscreants and protect personal privacy. I don’t place any value judgement on the concept itself”, says Fredrik Lindeberg.

Net neutrality

One area in which the three thought styles come into conflict is net neutrality. According to the interoperability thought style, it is necessary that the content and the network are independent, to ensure innovation and development. This means, in practice, that net neutrality must be preserved. This conflicts with the bureaucracy thought style, since regulations more often involve limitations to ensure protection than permissions to allow behaviour.

The market thought style – in which companies try to lock material up and create market barriers – is also in conflict with the interoperability thought style.

“At the same time, different commercial companies can have completely different interests”, says Fredrik Lindeberg.

“Actors who sell services benefit from net neutrality, since the network owners cannot determine what is transmitted across the networks. From their perspective, the network owners may be interested in regulations that enable them to control the content and sell it directly to the consumers.”

So what about the future – which direction will the internet take from here?

“I believe we are moving towards a more vertically integrated network in which for-profit organisations and bureaucracies gain more influence than they currently have. But I hope that not much changes. To be honest, I find it difficult to see how things could be controlled, or not controlled, better than they are at the moment.”

The interdisciplinary thesis presents a conceptualisation, a description, of what the internet actually is. It is, as Fredrik Lindeberg puts it: “an architecture and set of protocols for best-effort digital end-to-end communication effected by its users through adhocratic processes based on ideals of design for interoperability.”

Translated by George Farrants

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