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Turning the Internet Outside In

Doc Searls

Issue #186, October 2009

Let's hack an open Internet, starting at home.

You can only hack what's hackable. We owe Linux to the fact that operating systems are hackable, and that they can run on common hardware, much of which is also hackable. We also owe Linux to the Internet, which is a hack on wiring and data trafficking.

For PCs and mobile devices, Linux is a defaulted choice. It's at GandhiCon 4. That and the first three GandhiCons are implicit in the Mohandas Gandhi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The Internet, however, is another matter. The Internet Protocol (IP) arrived at GandhiCon 4 by 1981 (with IPv4). That's because it was created as what we might call a public protocol, connecting devices using just about any kind of network wiring, hardware and data link protocols (Ethernet, Token Ring, FDDI and so on), without prejudice. This made it easy and cheap for anybody to use.

By design, the Internet Protocol was decentralized. It reduced network complexity inside the network as far as possible, while relying on intelligence at its end nodes. It was even agnostic toward addressing schemes, leaving choices up to implementations at higher levels in the stack and resolution up to the Address Resolution Protocol (ARP).

Alas, what most people know best about the Internet is not its decentralized, depoliticized and free (as in both freedom and beer) public nature, but rather its centralized, politicized and costly (as in both freedom and beer) private one. This is the Internet of domain names that are privately owned (actually, rented), controlled by a central naming authority (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN) and filled with “pipes” mostly owned by private interests and highly cartelized. This is not an Internet to which we can simply connect. Instead, it's one we can “access” only through Internet Service Providers—a class of businesses that was born when small independent companies found ways to make the Internet available to anybody with a land line and has since become the tertiary service of phone and cable companies selling “broadband” or “high-speed Internet” as the third act in a “triple play”.

Although the former Internet is hackable, the latter one is not.

As it happens, I've been living in the hackproof hell of the private, centralized Internet for the last two weeks, during which time my home connection here in Santa Barbara has been intermittently plagued by high latencies and packet losses. My ping and traceroute tests clearly isolate the problem somewhere between my cable modem and the first IP address my packets encounter: a gateway downtown that's also owned by the cable company. Cable company technicians that have come to my house (four so far) have excused from blame my cable modem and all wiring between it and the service pole. They know the problem is somewhere in their system. They still have not solved it, and neither can I, even with help from many friends far geekier than myself.

So here is a radical proposition. Let's build the Internet we want—a free, open and hackable Internet—from the outside in.

This is something Bob Frankston has been advocating for many years. What Bob wants is simple connectivity between any points floating on the vast resource he calls our “sea of bits”. His latest label for this is “ambient connectivity”. In his essay “Opportunity for Innovation”, Bob writes, “Once we can assume connectivity we can start taking advantage of the opportunities. It's not just about high-value applications like education, commerce and entertainment. It's about basic infrastructure. We won't discover the real value until we've had a chance to experience ambient connectivity.” In a follow-up essay titled “Zero Marginal Cost”, he adds:

The idea that we can create our own solutions using raw, unreliable bits is at the heart of the Internet's generativity....

We've already seen the power of zero marginal cost. It was the availability of unmeasured local phone service that gave the United States the lead in adopting the Internet in the 1990s. We rejected digital phone service because the phone companies chose to charge a premium for that service. We just worked around it using modems because there was zero marginal cost for using the existing infrastructure.

Bob's model of the Internet is home networking, expanded outward through converging communities. In my interview with Bob for the March 2008 issue of Linux Journal (www.linuxjournal.com/article/10033), he said, “The networks in our homes are a good example. You 'just' print without worry about negotiating for the printing provider.”

As it happens, I'm also shopping for home networking gear—in particular, for a router/switch to connect the 16 Ethernet jacks scattered about the house. Cat-6 wiring runs from each of those jacks to a patch panel in a wiring closet. The cable company's modem is in there too.

Lemme tell ya, if there's a category ripe for disruption, it's home networking. I've been looking at Belkin, Cisco/Linksys, D-Link, Netgear and others—none of which are especially helpful. The 8-port device I'm replacing is a Netgear router/switch that was billed as a “VPN Firewall” but failed at the essentials: its gears were stripped by the cable company's new 20Mb downstream data speeds.

So let's look at making the Net hackable from the outside in. VCs always are asking about market size and “pain points” in need of relief. I can't think of a bigger, or more ideally hackable, pain than the one we find right at home.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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