What if ... specialised networks and proprietary standards become the new norm?
Is the Internet Doomed? Open Standers Have the Answer
Alice Raven doesn’t look like a revolutionary, but she speaks like one. At what turned out to be the final IETF meeting in 2022, the soft-spoken Singaporean presented some network graphs and diagrammes, lots of spreadsheets, and a few algebraic formulae. The big draw to her instantly-viral talk was its title: "Is the Internet Doomed?" Her answer: “Probably, but it doesn’t have to be”.
Raven’s research proved what many had feared: thanks to global duopolies, opaque ownership structures, network traffic shaping, and the locking of 25% of the world’s traffic inside national borders, today’s global Internet is so concentrated it has less than five points of potential failure. Raven recalled the IETF’s glory days of open standards, protocols and free-flows of traffic – “this was an era of network optimism that we have clearly forgotten and sadly even derided".
Her generation grew up in an era of walled gardens, with standard setting usurped by the big Internet platforms. There is no Internet (with a capital I); now we have internets, she said, closed networks designed to extract revenues and choke off non-standard innovation. Raven’s presentation closed with a rallying cry: The only way to return to the opportunity-rich optimism of the early days of the Internet was to take action – it was time to say “No more” and return to the core principles of openness, global reach and interoperability.
Raven’s walkout that day led several hundred engineers out of the meeting and into a new era. The "Open Standers", as they call themselves, are a loose group of engineers and programmers campaigning for radical network openness. They perform acts of construction and of resistance: one day building a community network in a South Asian megalopolis, the next, tearing open a globally branded IXP that sniffs packets from the starving north of Europe. Open Standers don’t want to rebuild the old Internet, but to invent something even better.
“You could say we were radicalised”, Raven says. “But by reality. That’s how you know nothing short of revolution will work – when reality is completely broken”.
This story shows us how the Internet might evolve. But the path we take is up to us.