Opinion: If the internet had developed differently, websites could have come in boxes – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Schrader is an independent software developer, writer and musician. He lives in Normal Heights.
The modern internet is an awesome thing, both wondrous and terrible. It is a place ostensibly run by its users, but actually ruled by truly enormous corporations. People will point to myriad different explanations for why and how the internet evolved from its early idealistic form into the land of corporate giants we know and don’t love today. But it was a series of nearly unnoticeable changes that set off a ripple in the early internet, resulting in our current reality, and it’s those changes that ensure the internet, as it could have been, will never truly exist.
In its early days, the internet was a wide-open frontier, a land of opportunity, just waiting to be explored. And while there is no actual land on the internet, there are a finite number of computers that power it. These computers and the connections between them make up the internet, and nearly all of them are owned by large corporations. In this way, there are no homesteads on the internet frontier. This is true on both the large and the small scales. Whether you start a website yourself, or use Facebook, you’re still effectively renting space from someone else. On the internet, we are all simply users of other people’s computers, tenants renting homes we can never own.
There was a time when an alternate future for the internet was possible. In this alternate timeline, anyone could go to Target or Walmart and buy a website. It would quite literally come in a box that you would put in your house. When you turned it on, it would ask you to choose a name for your website and that would be it. Once set up, you would never need to make an account on another platform again. There would be no platforms, and no enormous company would have the ability to collect and mine our data. Everything you wanted to share would be on your box, the one that you owned. It would be a place where you could write and read about the things you care about, and it could be accessible to anyone, or just to your friends and family. You could chat safely over video or text, comforted by the knowledge that your data is under your control, securely stored in a box under your router. If you wanted to sell something or offer a service, you could do so by adding it to your website for others to browse. New technologies would be apps that you could install, and since you own the box, there wouldn’t be arguments over the ownership of data. Your data is yours because it is literally stored on a box in your home. In this world, the internet could be a truly democratizing force. Each person, every citizen of the internet, would own their data and their web presence, free from the limitations and problems inherent in renting their digital land from corporations.
But alas, this future did not come to pass.
There is nothing preventing a company of upstarts from selling a website in a box, but there are three key limitations that prevent any realistic chance of success. For starters, in order to contact a website, you need to know its address, and most internet service providers (ISPs) don’t assign households a single, unchanging address. Because of this, unlike your street address, you could never tell potential visitors how to find you. We all know websites have names, but these names are simply aliases for those underlying addresses. Since the number can change at any time, eventually your name would point to the wrong address and visitors would be accidentally routed to another website. Even if ISPs assigned static addresses, they still block the traditional lanes set aside for websites. Finally, ordinary household internet connections are subject to enormous disparities between their download and upload speeds, meaning it’s far easier to read content from the internet than to contribute back to it.
No one would accept a world in which you could never own the car you drive, or the house you live in. Some people prefer to rent or lease, but cars and houses can still actually be bought. On the internet there is no path to ownership. Each of these stumbling blocks ensures that ordinary people can never truly own a piece of the internet frontier. If computers are the land of the internet, then our personal information is the crop. Instead of being given our own small farm to start our online lives anew, we’re forced to be digital sharecroppers. In exchange for a portion of our privacy, we are allowed the chance to cultivate lands we do not own. On the internet, we are not citizens. We’re just users. Is this freedom?

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