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Benjamin Bayart: Protect Internet biodiversity

Benjamin Bayart warns of the dangers connected to a centralized Internet, and comments on our changing knowledge society where "the world itself is an intellectual construct."

by Zeros and JBB On August 16, 2011

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Net neutrality – the guarantee that all feeds are treated equally on the Internet – is gradually becoming a political question. This is probably because it’s becoming increasingly threatened. Most people know what it is, and they understand the absolute necessity to preserve net neutrality.

This was not the case four years ago. Network neutrality was only a subject for a few geek politicians, struggling to be heard by the general public. Benjamin Bayart was among these early warning alarm ringers. With a conference in July 2007 in Amiens, entitled “Free Internet or Minitel 2.0″ viewed incessantly on the Internet (which you can find here). Bayart has significantly contributed to conveying the issue’s importance.

The president of the FDN [FR], the oldest provider still practicing in France, also fought against Hadopi and free software. In short, they advocate for a free Internet. We talked about it two months ago, here’s the resulting interview.

Is understanding the Internet the real issue?

Last night, I stumbled upon the book Confessions of a Thief by Laurent Chemla, one of the founders of Gandi (An alternative hosting option launched in 2000, based on the principle of ​​an Internet citizenry). The title of the book comes from a column in Le Monde, where the author explains what it’s like to be a thief. His book is freely available online. Although published in 2002, his analysis is timeless. The author establishes perfectly what the Internet is, the effect that the network has on society, how it restructures things, and the profound changes that it will cause.

He explains policies are exaggerated to see the arrival of beggars in their gilded salon and minding their own business - neither more nor less than the definition of Wikileaks.

By far, this precise understanding of the Internet is not shared by all. First of all, there is a clear generational divide – there aren’t very many people older than 50 who understand what the Internet is, a few at most. Added to the problem an instinctive understanding of what a network is - I don’t mean how to technically send an e-mail, but to have these practices so integrated that they become normal, which is the case for almost all people under 25. Conversely, politicians don’t understand any of it, and that’s the case for the Right and Left, far Left included.

By the way, have you ever read the NPA’s positions on the network? They are about as inspiring as the UMP’s … the NPA wants to close all the private boxes, nationalize France Telecom, and create a state Internet. Their level of thinking does not go beyond the mantra: it’s an industry, we must nationalize. Period. I have a lot of friends in the NPA who are trying to push for the program to include two or three of these fundamental principles. A few things about free software versus patents, for example, would be worth the trouble.

The only political party in France, to my knowledge, that has anything interesting to say about networks in its program is the PCF. Its line is clear and defined, voted upon ten years ago. They oppose software patents. They have a considerable advance on this subject.

You mentioned two or three fundamental principles for understanding networks. What are they?

Actually, its not about understanding networks, but society’s place. Among these fundamentals, there is first and foremost the necessity to understand modifying social tissues. It’s rather simple to explain. Suppose that a society is defined by interactions between people. That’s nothing new. There was handwritten society, then the printing society – one of the key factors in passing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Then there was the television society, which is different. Finally, there is the Internet, which fundamentally alters the figurative television society playing field.

These technical evolutions come with specific habits. The printing press come with a publisher who judges whether this or that writing is important enough to be released and diffused to the readers who have not had a say in that decision. It is a vertical world. Whereas with the Internet, everyone publishes, and decides to read who they want to read.

The model – we’re talking about networks not services like Google or Facebook – is totally horizontal.

First point, then: the changing society structure. In the world of writing, you are in contact with a few dozen people - at most. In the Internet world, the most awkward pimply teenagers have two hundred friends on their Facebook page. The change of structure is interesting. My parents and my grandparents did not correspond in writing with fifty people. They corresponded on deeper more true level? Maybe … But that’s not the issue.

Knowledge society

Second point: understanding what is at stake with intellectual property. The society we’ve been talking about is the knowledge society. Knowledge is the only things that truly exist in this society, the world itself is an intellectual construct. Therefore, the notion of intellectual property should be reviewed fully. Review the text of Louis Blanc on the question of what was then called the literary property epoch. He examined the problem well: How do you want to own an idea? Either you keep in the back of your head, you do not state it and then it simply never exists. Or you say it, and as soon as it is understood it spreads. How do you hold onto it, control it, or get it back?

So intellectual property has no right answer?

Of course not, because an idea can not be yours. Let’s say you were born a hermit in a cave, abandoned by your parents and raised by wolves. Then, one day, you come up with a great idea. One could legitimately assume that it’s slightly yours, it would be 90% the wolves’, but a little yours, too. The actual amount of innovation in an intellectual work is always marginal. As proof, if a work of the mind is too innovative, it becomes incomprehensible. If you invent the language in which your text is written, no one will ever read it.

The vast majority of works are de facto society’s collective work. The contribution by the author is extremely low, however this does not mean that it has no value. This is one reason why the idea of public domain developed during debates over copyright laws in the early nineteenth century. In principle, every work is public domain, except for a certain given time where an exclusivity is granted to the author. At the time, it was an exclusivity for a very short time. It was for about nine years, renewable once. Today, this term is unreasonable – grandchildren are paid for their grandfather’s work.

Everybody’s playing.  Just look at Disney. Every time the end date of copyright is reached for Papa Disney, the Americans force extensions of the copyright periods. It’s been a while since the fifty years after the death of the author time has elapsed, so it became seventy years. Now they’re pushing for 90 years because the 70 years after Disney’s death limit is rapidly approaching. Mickey becomes public domain over their dead bodies.

The paradox is that Mickey has been in public domain for decades. Everyone knows him, he is a household name. What is better is the character is falling into oblivion. How many children have seen a Mickey cartoon these days? Very few. The name has become common, but the character is being forgotten. Yet, it has not entered into public domain. Nonsense.

What the original copyright? The author of a work was associated with a temporary exclusive right to sell. Copyrights protected the artists from merchants. This was to ensure that authors were compensated. That should still be the case. Prevent situations like, for example, Apple benefiting from other people’s music with its iTunes platform. Remember, there are something like 50% of revenues from iTunes that fall directly into the pockets of Apple. This leaves the rest to the record companies, which is where normal profits sharing processes are enacted. In the end, only 6 or 7% of the 50% ends up in the pockets of the author. When it was a question of material support, it could be justified. Manufacturing discs was expensive, so was managing inventory. Now that the hardware support is gone, it’s another story.

Is the disappearance of material support one of the fundamentals you were talking about?

Indeed – dematerialization is a pillar of society’s future. A phenomenal amount of things no longer need hardware support: music, films, books. This is where many people get tangled up. They say ”virtual” when it should say “intangible.” The discussions you have on Facebook, by email or IRC are immaterial, and not virtual. It is not imaginary beings talking. The world of the knowledge society that is developing around the Internet is not an unreal world. This distinction is crucial.

The network is the physical space within which exists the immaterial world. We can not accept that physics is not neutral, that the physical world we live in is different depending on whether you are rich or poor. One thing that affects equally the rich and poor, that is death, illness and that a bruise develops when you bump into something. It’s the same on the network. This is fundamental – it is not possible that the substrate of the future society be anything but neutral.

Harming network neutrality should be considered a serious crime.

What is your ideal model for the Internet?

The model of Internet development is fully acentric. There is no center, no larger or more important part than the others. This is what makes it indestructible. The exchanges are standardized so as to maintain a heterogeneous entity. The Internet was designed so that two computers, no matter their brand or manufacturer, could talk and interact.

This acentric network exists, even if at the same time the ideal is unattainable by definition. And this network has great virtues, including that of ensuring rights and freedoms on the Internet. An example: if there was a more  centralized blog platform, you would only publish what they would let you publish - we would be returned to the television model. But for now, no platform can afford too much censorship, because it only takes ten days to launch a new platform. It is this ability to be acentric that guarantees freedoms in centralized systems.

This suggests something else, that there is finally a concept of biodiversity on the Internet. There is a strictly necessary diversity. For example, if there is only one operating system, the network changes very quickly, which can then drift to something else. We saw it when Internet Explorer was the ultra-hegemony: the web was paralyzed, and remained largely unchanged for ten years.

All this returns - essentially - to the existence of a critical mass. If there aren’t enough acentric parts, the system quickly degenerates and collapses. That’s why I started the topic on the Minitel 2.0, I am afraid that we’ll fall below a critical mass. For example, the day when e-mail becomes too centralized, those that do not use the largest messenger will be left high and dry. Remember, there are about 150 e-mail providers on the planet, including the all-stars (Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook), major league players (which are the major ISPs in general, including Orange and Free) and finally the minor league players that remain. If the all-star players decide to only talk among themselves, to block mails from the minor league players, then these little providers would disappear.

This is what’s happening right now. There are times when the outgoing mails of specific micro-structures are not accepted by Hotmail, other times they are systematically sorted into the spam folder. But as long as there is a critical mass, at least 1% of mail traffic handled by the little providers, the giants can not ignore them completely and are forced to pay a little attention to them. Otherwise, that could cause a stir. 1% of the population can make a lot of noise …

It’s surprising to hear you talk about biodiversity. How does that relate to the Internet?

Here is a very telling example: environmentalists are trying to appropriate this acentric network idea. Anything they build around the concept of sustainable development ends up being very similar to the Internet. For example, their focus on how best to manage the electricity created by two large models; either use huge centers, which diffuse electricity on monumental power networks and where we use about 30% of the energy to heat the network (another way of saying lost in transit), or use completely acentrical models, where everyone produces a small amount of electricity used for heating (if necessary), or to heat the neighbors (if they produce that much). Ecologists today are realizing that this second model is much more effective.

Network resilience

This model also looks like a lot of old models of society, which are more resilient societies. In the sixteenth century, the plague needed a long time to get from one part of the country to another. Today, it wouldn’t take fifteen days … We’ve known about the resilience of these networks for a long time. The benefit of the ultra-centralized systems that were built in the Middle Ages was to increase communication speed. This allowed civilizations to grow much faster. But when we reach the extreme of these models, we’re in the world of the late twentieth century. Civilizations have gone crazy, becoming fragile - almost nothing at all is enough to make them worry. Dangerous systems exist, like nuclear power plants. The problem is there.

It’s the same with servers. If you have a very small server that perfectly matches the power you need (for most people this is less power than an iPhone), then that is just swell. No need to feed the huge bandwidth to servers that are at the other end of the world, hundreds of thousands stored in a data center of 30,000 square meters that must be cooled all the time. Even if they’re in the deserts of California, they must be cooled ….

Energy efficiency is much better when the network is decentralized, it is even possible to power it with photovoltaic power.

Just try to power a data-center with photovoltaic power, that’s a laugh.

To summarize, as it stands today the energy cost of the network is negligible compared to the gains it provides, but it is still elevated compared to what it could be. In comparison, the energy cost of Google’s machines - which does not participate in the network, but only provides services – is huge. Did you know that Google, which runs roughly ten million machines, was the second or third largest computer manufacturer in the world? Just for its own needs … More nonsense!

Not only that, but it’s a dangerous and intrusive service …

Violations of privacy perpetrated ​​by Google are unacceptable. The possibly of a monopoly is terribly dangerous. For now, Google is behaving reasonably well in terms of respect for freedoms, but there is no guarantee that this will last indefinitely – therefore, it will not last. Google is on the verge of being Big Brother. They’ll soon know everything about everyone all the time.

It’s a real question: was there a thing that indexes all of the online knowledge, more than any library in the world. It indexes all public exchanges, as though it were recording all the conversations happening in the world at this very moment. It indexes - as long as you use Gmail - your personal email with contacts of people you have written or that have written you. It is able to present targeted advertisements, since it knows all the research you have done and what links you clicked. It’s scary …

There is a difference between the village life, where everyone’s watching everyone else, and Google life, where Google monitors everyone. One obvious difference. In the village society, I’m anybody, I watch my neighbors almost unintentionally. That’s OK. But if one person - in this case Google – monitors anyone and everyone, then the entity that controls Google has considerable and mind-boggling power. It’s a real problem.

Verticalization of the Internet

It’s not just Google. All this, what I refer to here, is talking about the phenomenon that I explained in my lecture on Minitel 2.0: verticalization of the Internet. He who holds the point of emission decides who has the right to emit. A super simple example, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more of a fuss. It is impossible to view pornographic content on the iPhone and iPad. Steve Jobs’ morals define what users have a right to do on his devices (Steve Jobs stated: ”We sincerely believe that we have a moral responsibility to eliminate pornography from the iPhone. People who want porn can buy an Android phone.”) … It is an object that I bought, on which I can read content, look at pictures, watch videos, and yet I do not have the freedom to choose the videos in question? It’s supernatural! All because the boss of the company that sold it to me thinks that masturbation is bad.

We are right in the middle of centralization delirium. Steve Jobs has not imposed his political ideas, but it will come. And people do not react. They keep buying Apple products and choosing Gmail. The worst part is that it’s sometimes the same people who claim to defend the freedoms …

How do we turn the tide?

We must first explain and educate, so  people will understand how Google is dangerous and learn to do without. We also have to find ways to make the tools simpler to use.

When I started on the network, people thought it was complicated to send an e-mail. This is (knock on wood) no longer the case. We just have to keep hoping that this trend will continue. For example, if in the near future, everyone could host themselves at home – which is possessing a small personal server - many of our problems would be solved. It’s not hard. Any household Internet access user in France can host a server, but it just lacks simple tools. If people also understood why it is essential to self-host, the other part of the problem would be resolved, too.

Of course we are not there yet, but it is in progresses. The geeks have now understood the need to teach the Internet to the masses, and they also realized that there is a danger. That Youtube is useful, but dangerous. That Facebook is highly dangerous. That all of these centralized platforms need to be avoided. Again, a good way to avoid them is the existence of an acentric critical mass.

It is strange that ultimately the battle for acentric model is not pushed by the more radical circles …

It is a problem. There are certain people that we can not reach. For me, the issue of an acentric network  should interest people in the global justice sphere, green parties, libertarians, etc..

Protect the planet, save the Internet

Any ecologist or anti-globalization movement participants should understand why the subject is absolutely essential, that their debates lose all meaning without the network.

The Internet is one of the major players in reducing our reliance on oil, because it reduces the need to transport.

If you want to go back to a society where you eat local, it means you do not spend your time making 200 trips by car. But how do we manage that without a decrease in scientific and technical knowledge? What will you do to follow university studies in quantum physics if you can not leave your village? How will you ensure that your small provincial university has access to all scientific knowledge? Without the network, it’s impossible.

By centralizing, we had learned to do things that were not possible before. Great academic libraries stored a lot more knowledge than ever before. Today, the opposite is true. Buying everything is a waste of money, things are published faster than they can be purchased. The network allows free access to all scientific publications in the world, including physics, mathematics and chemistry, and are written in a variety of languages ranging from Hindi to Italian. It should be understood that the network is being used to decentralize, to offer you all the knowledge of mankind while you don’t even lift a finger … It is now possible to relocate the world because of what centralization achieved (the collection of a large body of knowledge in one place). Now, we can do the same thing with an acentric network.


Article initially published on Article11 under the title : « Benjamin Bayart: “Il est désormais possible de relocaliser le monde” »

Photo credits: FlickR CC opensourcewayInmigrante a media jordana

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