This wasn’t the internet we envisaged

The debate over privacy on Facebook got me thinking about the internet we envisaged. Reading media commentary on Tim Cook’s recent address at Duke University prodded me into action.

What do I mean by we? I mean the people who:

  • Wrote about the internet from the mid-1990s onwards
  • Developed services during web 1.0 and web 2.0 times

I’ve played my own small part in it.

At the time there was a confluence of innovation. Telecoms deregulation and the move to digital had reduced the cost of data and voice calls. Cable and satellite television was starting to change how we viewed the world. CNN led the way in bringing the news into homes. For many at the time interactive TV seemed like the future of media.

Max Headroom

Starship Troopers

The Running Man

Second generation cellular democratised mobile phone ownership. The internet was becoming a useful consumer service. My first email address was a number@site.corning.com format email address back in 1994. I used it for work, apart from an unintended spam email sent to colleagues to offload some vouchers I’d been given.

My college email later that year was on a similar format of address; on a different domain. I ended up using my pager more than my email to stay in touch with other students. Although all students had access to the internet at college, the take-up was still very low. At college I signed up for a Yahoo! web email. I had realised that an address post-University would be useful. Yahoo! was were I saw my first online ads. They reminded me of garish versions of classified ads in newspapers.

After I left college I used to go to Liverpool at least once a week to go to an internet cafe just off James Street and check my email account, with a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. I introduced my friend Andy to the internet (mostly email), since we used to meet up there and then go browsing records, clothes, hi-fi, studio equipment, event flyers and books at the likes of HMV, the Bluecoat Chambers, Quiggins, The Palace and Probe Records.

I found out that I had my first agency job down in London when I was called on my cell phone whilst driving.

The internet was as much as an idea as anything else and the future of us netizens came alive for me in the pages of Wired and Byte. Both were American magazines. Byte was a magazine that delved deeper into technology than Ars Technica or Anandtech. Wired probed the outer limits of technology, culture and design. At the time each issue was a work of art. They pushed typography and graphic design to the limits. Neon and metallic inks, discordant fonts and an early attempt at offline to online integration. It seemed to be the perfect accompanyment to the cyberpunk science fiction I had been reading. The future was bright: literally.

Hacking didn’t have consumers as victims but was the province of large (usually bad) mega corps.

I moved down to London just in time to be involved in the telecoms boom that mirrored the dot com boom. I helped telecoms companies market their data networks and VoIP services. I helped technology companies sell to the telecoms companies. The agency I worked for had a dedicated 1Mb line. This was much faster than anything I’d used before. It provided amazing access to information and content. Video was ropey. Silicon.com and Real Media featured glitchy postage stamp sized clips. My company hosted the first live broadcast of Victoria’s Secret fashion show online. It was crap in reality, but a great proof of concept for the future.

I managed to get access to recordings of DJ sets by my Chicago heroes. Most of whom I’d only read about over the years in the likes of Mixmag.

All of this pointed to a bright future, sure there were some dangers along the way. But I never worried too much about the privacy threat (at least from technology companies). If there was any ‘enemy’ it was ‘the man’.

In the cold war and its immediate aftermath governments had gone after:

  • Organised labour (the UK miners strike)
  • Cultural movements (Rave culture in the UK)
  • Socio-political groups (environmentalists and the nuclear disarmament movement)

I had grown up close to the infamous Capenhurst microwave phone tap tower. Whilst it was secret, there were private discussions about its purpose. Phil Zimmerman’s PGP cryptography offered privacy, if you had the technical skills. In 1998, the European Parliament posted a report on ECHELON. A global government owned telecoms surveillance network. ECHELON was a forerunner of the kind of surveillance Edwards Snowden disclosed a decade and a half later.

One may legitimately feel scandalised that this espionage, which has gone on over several years, has not given rise to official protests. For the European Union, essential interests are at stake. On the one hand, it seems to have been established that there have been violations of the fundamental rights of its citizens, on the other, economic espionage may have had disastrous consequences, on employment for example. – Nicole Fontaine, president of the european parliament (2000)

I advised clients on the ‘social’ web since before social media had a ‘name’. And I worked at the company formerly known as Yahoo!. This was during a brief period when it tried to innovate in social and data. At no time did I think that the companies powering the web would:

  • Rebuild the walled gardens of the early ‘net (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy)
  • Build oligopolies, since the web at that time promised a near perfect market due to it increasing access to market information. Disintermediation would have enabled suppliers and consumers to have a direct relationship, instead Amazon has become the equivalent of the Sears Roebuck catalogue
  • Become a serious privacy issue. Though we did realise by 2001 thanks to X10 wireless cameras that ads could be very annoying. I was naive enough to think of technology and technologists as being a disruptive source of cultural change. The reason for this was the likes of Phil Zimmerman on crypto. Craig Newmark over at Craigslist, the community of The Well and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The likes of Peter Thiel is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Silicon Valley

We had the first inkling about privacy when online ad companies (NebuAd and Phorm) partnered with internet service providers. They used ‘deep packet inspection’ data to analyse a users behaviour, and then serve ‘relevant ads.

Tim Cook fits into the ‘we’ quite neatly. He is a late ‘baby boomer’ who came into adulthood right at the beginning of the PC revolution. He had a front row seat as PCs, nascent data networks and globalisation changed the modern world. He worked at IBM and Compaq during this time.

Cook moved to Apple at an interesting time. Jobs had returned with the NeXT acquisition. The modern macOS was near ready and there was a clear roadmap for developers. The iMac was going into production and would be launched in August.

Many emphasise the move to USB connectors, or the design which brought the Mac Classic format up to date. The key feature was a built in modem and simple way to get online once you turned the machine on. Apple bundled ethernet and a modem in the machine. It also came with everything you needed preloaded to up an account with an ISP. No uploading software, no errant modem drivers, no DLL conflicts. It just worked. Apple took care selecting ISPs that it partnered with, which also helped.

By this time China was well on its way to taking its place in global supply chains. China would later join the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

The start of Tim Cook’s career at Apple coincided with with the internet the way we knew it. And the company benefited from the more counter culture aspects of the technology industry:

  • Open source software (KDE Conqueror, BSD, Mach)
  • Open standards (UNIX, SyncML)
  • Open internet standards (IMAP, WebCAL, WebDav)

By the time that Facebook was founded. Open source and globalisation where facts of life in the technology sector. They do open source because that’s the rules of business now. It is noticeable that Facebook’s businesses don’t help grow the commons like Flickr did.

Businesses like Flickr, delicious and others built in a simple process to export your data. Facebook and similar businesses have a lot less progressive attitudes to user control over data.

Cook is also old enough to value privacy, having grown up in a less connected and less progressive age.  It was only in 2014 that Cook became the first publicly gay CEO of a Fortune 100 company. It is understandable why Cook would be reticent about his sexuality.

He is only a generation younger than the participants in the riots at the Stonewall Inn.

By comparison, for Zuckerberg and his peers:

  • The 1960s and counterculture were a distant memory
  • The cold war has been won and just a memory of what it was like for Eastern Europeans to live under a surveillance state
  • Wall Street and Microsoft were their heroes. Being rich was more important than the intrinsic quality of the product
  • Ayn Rand was more of a guiding star than Ram Dass

They didn’t think about what kind of dark underbelly that platforms could have and older generations of technologists generally thought too well of others to envisage the effects. You have to had a pretty dim view of fellow human beings.

More information
Tim Cook brought his pro-privacy views to his Duke commencement speech today | Recode
Bugging ring around Ireland | Duncan Campbell (1999) PDF document
The ECHELON Affair The EP and the global interception system 1998 – 2002 (European Parliament History Series) by Franco Piodi and Iolanda Mombelli for the European Parliament Research Unit – PDF document
Memex In Action: Watch DARPA Artificial Intelligence Search For Crime On The ‘Dark Web’| Forbes
X10 ads are useless – Geek.com
Disintermediation – Wikipedia