Route Around

Doc Searls wrote an interesting article entitled “Saving the Net” in Linux Journal. While he does present a dystopia in which the net is controlled by large corporation that understand how to use regulations as a weapon, I beg to differ on his vision of the future.

My personal suspicion is that the net community will route around the problem once enough people become aware of what is going on.

The rise of Linux as an alternative to deeply entrenched Windows is showing that something new is happening here. While SCO has started menacing litigation over intellectual property and Linux, the message from big companies is that they are not changing their strategy. What is important here is not the fact that companies are adopting Linux but the fact that companies are starting to look at the OS as a commodity, one that can easily be replaced at a later time. This is an important development because it lowers the potential for control. In order to fully control what consumers have access to, you need to be able to control the environment. With operating systems becoming a commodity, that control erodes.

Control of the operating system is one of the key elements behind the TCPA’s goal to lock up computers in order to give more control to content producers. However, with a commodity operating system that control becomes more difficult to gain. The next two areas in which such control can happen are at the processor level (and here, I would invoke market dynamics as a surefire way to fight this point since at least one vendor will probably want to differentiate itself from its competitors by offering non-crippled chips) and at the access level.

That last point, however, is countered by the fact that increasingly (and this is something the phone and cable companies do not want you to know), the cost of running your own access point is dropping. True, it still costs several hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to do so but I suspect that something much scarier could happen if the pipes start clamping down.

With the rise of Wi-Fi, control of the net is moving from cables to the open airspace. Granted, many will say that in order to access resources on the Internet, there is still a need for access to a land line software, even if that land line is connected to a wireless router. However, with the rise of cheap access point devices, there is a possibility for creating a new network, one that does not touch upon the rest of the net, but one that does connect computers from access point to access point. In a way, all the technology needed for this already exists. A network protocol like TCP/IP can carry content over the air, and technologies like Zero Configuration Networking make discoverability easy to do. Coupled with the explosive growth of wireless hotspots, the hold on connection lines is increasingly becoming irrelevant. What is happening here is not only a commoditization of the operating system but also a commoditization of the connectivity space.

Even in a world where the United States manages to outlaw Linux and where the big telcos manage to regulate Internet access, unfetered access to ressource beyond their control will continue. If one studies geopolitics, it is easy to see that some countries will see it in their best interest to avoid such regulation so they can offer data havens, picking up nice extra tax dollars on the sale of goods and services in those havens. Ultimately, the problem US companies have, whether they manage to regulate the Internet or not, is that the network is now largely a global one.

To date, attempts to limit Internet activities in certain parts of the world (Iraq and China for example) have only met with resistance and ultimately failure in terms of limiting what people can and cannot see. I suspect that if such limits were imposed by large corporation, they would meet the same fate as those efforts, maybe stopping activity for a little while but, eventually, someone would find a hole. And it is from such small hole that the dam would burst.

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