Rant: The Internet Is Broken

The internet has come a long way in 20 years. The infrastructure is older than that, of course, but it was 1994 when the amazing new World Wide Web started to make a serious impression on me and my colleagues and friends. Firing up Netscape Navigator 1.0 on Windows 3.11 with a wobbly TCP/IP stack and a 14.4kbps modem, typing in a cryptic URL and seeing information from the other side of the world, instantly! It was an incredible experience.

For those of us who remember that time when the internet was just fields, anything seemed possible. This new technology would destroy national boundaries, make governments obsolete, bring peace to the world and make it possible to buy illegal drugs with ease.

Well, one out of four ain't bad.

The internet is a huge disappointment. It could never really be anything else, of course, but over the last 20 years I've watched its potential being whittled down and annihilated. Once the first few companies started to tentatively publish their own websites in the mid-1990s, there was never going to be any other outcome. It began with people and ended with The Man, as North Americans might say. Predictable, I suppose: we started off with dancing hamsters and ended up with swathes of marketing crap, people shouting about how great they are, and videos of idiots doing dumb things. And even the videos are packed full of ads.

What about online shopping, I hear you cry? Well, it's great as long as you can remember all your passwords, don't mind dealing with fraudulent or incompetent sellers and make sure your computer's secure, but since the latter point is fundamentally impossible then it's all rather moot. Just recently, when eBay was hacked, a government minister suggested that it's probably safer and more sensible to shop in the high street. And, annoyingly, he's probably right. I changed my eBay password the day I heard about the hack on the radio, which was four days before eBay emailed me to suggest I might think about changing it. Four days? What were they doing for four days?

Then there's online privacy. You have none. You might once have thought you did, before all the Edward Snowden stuff, but now you know you don't at all. The NSA/GCHQ reads everything about you and even has photos from your webcam. They've probably hacked or subverted the HTTPS protocol, even ignoring the Heartbleed vulnerability, and it's best to assume that nothing is private from them. Even the Russian government has reverted to using typewriters for sensitive documents. Any discussion you carry out online is as private as writing it on a sandwich board and striding naked through the streets whilst wearing it.

Security? Read your bank's T&Cs carefully: these days some of them explicitly disclaim any loss suffered through internet banking, and more will doubtless follow once their legal teams have wrapped up the details. They know the score. Hacking is big business and it pays. Stick with your building society passbook, grandma.

What about freedom? You might think the internet would increase freedom around the world, but it doesn't work like that in practice. Sure, there's the initial glow of "Democracy, woo!" as some of the state's powers are pushed back by the new spread of uncensored information. But then those powers return with a vengeance as the people in control learn how to use the technology against their citizens. It's great that you get to discuss peaceful revolution with like-minded individuals on the internet… but then there's a knock on your door at 3am.

No governments have ever been toppled by social media, whatever the canny press releases and bought-and-paid-for journalists would have you believe. They were toppled by people because they were awful governments. To claim anything else is to do a disservice to those who fought, and in some cases died, for what they hoped would be a better life but which usually turned out to be the same thing in different boots.

Web 2.0 and social networking in general? It was supposed to be empowering and world-changing but it's just shown us up for the self-obsessed narcissists we really are. "Look at me, look at me! I have new shoes!"

Just like voting, if the internet actually made any difference to anything then it would be banned.

And that's not even considering what you need to do to accessthis wonderful network these days. It might have been annoying when Trumpet Winsock repeatedly dropped the dial-up connection in 1994, but at least the software didn't mutate from one day to the next. 

It took Netscape thirteen years to get from version 1 of its browser in 1994 to version 8 in 2007. During that time it began morphing into Firefox, version 10 of which was released just two years ago. Now we're approaching Firefox 30. Or, by the time you read this, probably 40.

Many other programs and apps are just as bad. It seems a badge of honour to knock out a major release every month. Why? If it's due to bugs, why not just take your time and code the thing properly in the first place? There can't be that many zero-day exploits to patch, and if there are it just reinforces my point: the internet is broken. These days a big chunk of your internet bandwidth goes on updates to your operating system and applications. "Don't switch off now, I just need to install 327 new critical updates to prevent Elbonian hackers stealing your life's savings. Please wait... and keep waiting... a really long time..."

The internet hasn't really changed the world, it's just made it louder. You can't change the world without changing people, and most people's behaviour is hard-wired from 10,000 years ago when they first started to realise how farming works. The internet just makes our embarrassing, petty, neurotic personalities more apparent to everyone around us, but they don't care because they're just the same.

Yet some people are starting to understand. Countries like Brazil and also some states and regions in the US, Germany and elsewhere are quietly attempting to decouple from the wider internet entirely and route traffic only within their own boundaries. Their reasons vary but the underlying cause is the same: the internet is broken.

So screw it. It was fun while it lasted but I'm going back to pen and paper.

That's all. Thanks for coming. Please switch off your routers on the way out.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business called Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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