Internode Blog

DotCom turns TwentyFive

Thursday, March 18th, 2010 by

(This is a slightly expanded and link-annotated version of an opinion piece that first appeared at http://www.businessspectator.com.au)

Twenty five years ago this month, the first .com domain name was registered. Now there more than 80 million of them. And the genie is irreversibly out of the bottle.

The .com domain defines a generation and its evolving relationship with the Internet.

You can see a great sample of the things that have happened in the Internet context over this time, here: http://www.25yearsof.com.

From its humble beginnings as somewhere to park your company name, it has become a realm so ‘hot’ that domain name trading can be profitable in its own right (I even did a little of this myself – I sold ‘hackett.com‘ to a company some years back who seemed to want it more than I did).

If your commercial desires involve registering a name in .com that is pretty much any single word in the English language dictionary – you’re already many years too late.

Within the incredibly diverse framework of web sites and content that has evolved over the last two and a half decades, one of the more impressive things has been the evolution of “us”, of ordinary Internet users, as ‘content’ in our own right.

There are some incredibly viral videos out there (http://mashable.com/2009/05/25/youtube-video-memes), augmented and spread through the amazing social landscape of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all the rest of them.

I’m even doing the user-created video thing in my own little way now – and having lots of fun doing it (http://www.youtube.com/user/simonhackett).

These user-generated content trends have created something new, something powerful – they have given us all a voice on a level playing field. If your video or your words, your song or your manifesto, are worthy of popularity, then on the modern Internet, they can achieve that popularity, quite literally overnight. You can do this – I can do this – anyone can do this – at almost no direct cost, and with global reach.

If nobody cares about your own personal video, you still gain the satisfaction of having put it out there into the metaverse. It generally does nobody any harm, makes us feel good about ourselves, and sometimes it also does a power of good.

Due, quite literally, to a lack of back pressure (registering domain names is inexpensive and easy), there are now more than half a million new domain names being added to the Internet Domain Name System each month. I recall debates within the IETF community in past years about the fact that the domain name servers wouldn’t be able to scale to keep up with demand. It seems, however, that commercial imperatives have trumped technical purity, and the domain name system does just keep on getting bigger and bigger each day.

The expected problem with all those domain names, when this domain name rush really kicked into high gear in the mid 1990’s, was that the Internet was (still is!) like an insanely large library with no index. As we all know, that problem has in turn been solved, through an inspired combination of technical brute force and extremely intelligent software architecture and design, by Google (and others, but mainly by Google).

In the midst of all of this, however, we are seeing the rise of some governments that are acting to repress Internet-bourne messages that they don’t want you to see. Because they know they can’t stop the actual content from leaking across their borders, they’re trying to block it from their citizens by blocking the index to the library, rather than the contents of the library itself.

The index (Google and its relatives) are indeed a smaller target to block than ‘everything’.

But it just doesn’t work.

The power of the information behind that index is so high that access to it will not be denied – even if Google does wind up deciding to exit China in its own right.

Indeed, and ironically, that won’t make it simpler to block access to ‘the index’ of this library in China. Instead, it will blow the doors right off of the ‘control’ currently exercised via that Chinese version of Google.

That is because, without access to a China specific Google, access will continue to be obtained (via easily located VPN servers and proxy servers, both electronic and human), right through the firewall, and out to the US presence of Google on the Internet instead. The Chinese government will go from ‘some influence’ to ‘zero influence’ over what its citizens can find on the Internet.

John Gilmore, one of the founders of EFF, famously said: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”

Whether its an effort to block Google access in China, an effort toward mandatory Internet censorship in Australia, or otherwise, these efforts are truly futile.

The clear lesson learned from policies such as prohibition in the 1920’s in the USA, is that when a government blocks something this insanely popular, it just gets driven underground.

And once underground, there is no control at all.

And in that context, a last word about how this situation impinges on the current federal government policy to create mandatory Internet filtering in Australia:

If the point here is social benefit, and social protection, then spend the money on social programmes, education, and police work instead, and some good can come of it.

But if the point here is merely political point-scoring (because filtering can be trivially and unavoidably bypassed by anyone – in China, in Australia, and anywhere else), then its time to hang up the bullshit bat and get on with doing something real.

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