Throughout history the rich and powerful have always managed to pigeon hole the masses into the boxes they wanted them in. With the internet, we had a brief window of opportunity to change that, but now the window is closing. And it's no one's fault but our own. We are the ones who have been eager to throw away our freedom in exchange for a few figurative strings of beads. We are the ones who have allowed the giant corporations to corral us into their websites and lead us to believe that everywhere else on the internet is unsafe. And we are the ones who, in exchange for illusionary safety, have allowed governments to pass more and more laws making internet freedom more and more difficult.
I remember what the internet was like in the late '80's and early '90's. In 1985 I sent my first email to someone else on the university's computer network. I think I used the command-line email program called "pine". I remember using the "gopher" command-line search engine to look for my first job. There was no graphical internet back then, because there were no internet browsers. A few years later, what we now know as the internet was mostly called the "World Wide Web". That's why we have the "www" at the beginning of many URL's. The internet was still composed mostly of the websites of hobbyists linked together by telephone lines. Company upper-level managers were just beginning to wonder if they could make some money from it. As such, the internet was so varied that is was hard to characterize. I remember thinking back then what a great potential existed and how I could hardly wait for more people to start using it and making it more useful.
Before the "internet" was a word that most people knew, we had Bulletin Boards Services (BBS). A BBS was a computer hooked up to a telephone line via a modem. Hobbyists created BBSes and filled them mostly with free software, online games, forums, and local email. If you wanted to connect to their computer, you didn't go through an ISP, you called them directly. Long distance service was expensive back then, so you were limited to connecting to BBSes with local phone numbers. That meant you usually had to live in a big city to have access to one or more BBSes. For a fee, BBSes would give you limited world-wide email capability. But there weren't many people you could email back in those days. Back then, anyone was welcome on the internet. There were no real rules or laws governing what you could do. It wasn't even illegal to hack into someone else's computer network and create whatever havoc you could think of.
The internet really began in earnest in the early '90's. Companies like America Online and Compuserve became the first ISP's by making it possible for people to connect to the global computer network by dialing a free local phone number. Technically, ISP's began in 1989, but it took a few years for significant numbers of people to start using them. Many of the first websites were nothing more than BBSes that had migrated to the internet. The internet grew mostly because commercial companies found ways to offer internet services that people wanted: first, information and email; later, social networking and shopping; even later, VOIP telephone services, music, movies and all the other great stuff we have now.
The internet is a very different place now. I recently learned just how different by creating my own website. Now, if you want to have anyone visit your website, you have to please the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the search engine providers, the most influential being Google. Unless you are some kind of celebrity, search engine traffic will most likely account for more than 90% of the traffic to your website. So, if Google doesn't like you, very few people ever see your website. And, if my experience is typical, Google very likely won't tell you why it doesn't like you. It just doesn't send anyone to your website. Oh, there are some vague statements that Google makes from time to time, and there are companies that make money by interpreting those vague statements. And Google provides some tools that it claims will help you. But the bottom line is that Google doesn't have to tell you anything. I have no way of knowing whether writing an article critical of Google will affect my search results, because Google doesn't say. For me that's not a problem for two reasons: 1) my website can't possibly be ranked any lower that it already is, and 2) I'm not trying to make a living off this website. But, if you are trying to start a business on the internet, Google not liking you means your business is over. Period. One of the major criteria that Google says it uses to decide who to list high in its search results is the amount of traffic to their website. In other words, if you have a new website with no significant traffic, it is likely that you never will have any significant traffic. In fact, given that cheapskatesguide.org is a very new website, if you are reading this article in December of 2018, when I wrote it, you are literally one of a handful of people on the planet Earth who will see it then.
Another tactic being employed against individuals who create websites is the SSL/TLS security certificate. Google has decided that "secure" HTTPS websites are preferable to "unsecure" HTTP websites. So, they are prioritizing HTTPS websites in their search results. And, if you try to create an HTTPS website that doesn't meet Google's security requirements, they throw up a page warning visitors that your website is not secure and asking whether they want to continue or leave. Not knowing any better, about 80% of visitors choose to leave. To become an HTTPS website, you have to get an SSL/TLS security certificate. And guess what? In order to get one, you have to "prove" that you deserve it and pay a fee. (The one fee-less certification authority is Let's Encrypt. Thank you Internet Security Research Group and Electronic Frontier Fondation.) This is a bit like being searched by the TSA at the airport. In my opinion, it's all just a big show that doesn't really do much, if anything at all, to deter someone who wants to scam you. One reason is that you are still relying on human beings who run the certification organizations to be trustworthy and vigilant, and we have already seen examples where they weren't. (See here, here, and here.) The current fees and level of proof are not the major issue. The major issue is that once we allow ourselves to be put into this box, the fees and level of proof can be raised to whatever level the controlling organizations decide. They can be raised so high that individuals can no longer afford to have their own websites. At this point, everyday people like you and I will have been completely relegated to the role of consumers of the internet, rather than true participants in it. We will be right back in the box the rich and powerful want us in.
The point I am trying to illustrate is that the internet is now a highly controlled place. If you want more than a tiny trickle of traffic on your website, you have to write and display your webpages the way Google wants. If you want traffic, you better not link any of your webpages to websites that Google doesn't like, or it will lower your website in its search rankings. It's sort of like being an unpopular kid in high school. But, if you are trying to run a business, this kind of unpopularity can bankrupt you. I think this kind of gatekeeper control over the internet has had a hand in turning the competition for website traffic into a feeding frenzy like sharks fighting over chum. This is why you very rarely see a hobbyist's website on the internet any more. Hobbyists can't afford to hire consultants to tell them how to rank high in search results.
In addition to the gatekeepers, governments are strengthening their control of the internet with new laws coming out seemingly every month that limit what you can do on the internet. An example is the new European law concerning what websites have to reveal about the information they collect from their visitors (which I am mostly in favor of). But there are also far less rational laws being passed. These days, if you say something wrong to the wrong person on the internet, you can be prosecuted for "cyber-bullying" and sent to jail. As if cyber-bullying is somehow worse than the regular kind of bullying. Kids sending each other revealing pictures can be theoretically locked up for child pornography. This can potentially happen to a teenage girl sending a picture of herself to her boyfriend. But what would you expect in a country where public urination, simply because someone has to empty their bladder and can't find a public restroom, can be a sex crime? Perhaps the worst thing is that the politicians of the world have finally found ways of preventing people they don't like from speaking out against them. They simply intimidate the gatekeepers into shutting off our internet access to those speaking out--China's intimidation of Google being the best example. And many of the rest of us who aren't even engaged in political speech are afraid to search for certain things on the internet for fear that the NSA or some other governmental entity is watching us. This means that free speech is being effectively shut down on the internet. If no one can hear anything you're saying, or if they are afraid to search for your website, then you have no speech--free or otherwise. (See here.)
The trends of increasing control over the internet resulting in the lessening of free speach seem to be worsening. Not only are large companies, controlling who can be found online, but governments are increasingly finding ways of silencing online political dissension through policies and regulations less and less respectful of free speech. And because these institutions now have more control than ever over the internet, meaning more control over what you and I see on the internet, there will be less free speech there. This trend doesn't have to continue. If we decide to do something about this, we can. But, my prediction is that we won't. I base that on my view of one aspect of human nature. That is, for 99% of us, rather than standing up for ourselves and solving the problems we see around us, we wait for someone else to do it for us. Unfortunately, in the case of the internet, the problem solvers--organizations like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft--are now the ones causing the problems, as well as solving them. And that does not bode well for the average person who simply wants to speak the truth and find the truth on the internet--or just find anything on the internet that isn't sanctioned by the gatekeepers.
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