In retrospect, it was the first word that meant the most: World Wide Web, the idea that we could connect pretty much everyone, pretty much everywhere, at pretty much any time, to a singular global network that would allow the instantaneous, free flow of information and ideas—first among them, democracy itself.
Great idea in theory. In practice, less so. Today, government and business-sponsored shutdowns, site-blocking, disruptions, throttling, blackouts, and disconnections stand to make the web less worldly. From the so-called Great Firewall of China to service providers throttling download speeds to Russia’s recent attempt to permanently log itself out of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the free, open, and globally accessible World Wide Web isn’t exactly living up to its name.
But the idea isn’t going down without a fight. A new generation of activists, ethical hackers, and entrepreneurs are working to ensure access is never cut off. Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Starlink “constellation” of some 2,000 small, low-orbiting satellites offers internet coverage pretty much anywhere, including in countries dead set against such coverage. Such service comes at a fairly hefty price ($90/month), but if it offers a way to counter the official party line of the juntas and strongmen, it’s a price worth paying.
Over in the app store, virtual private networks (VPNs), which disguise a user’s location, have become some of the hottest downloads for both Android and Apple mobile phones. Many have been created by “hacktivists” and internet libertarians—although the Open Technolgoy Fund, which is financed by the U.S. government, supports free apps. Meanwhile, nonprofit Access Now is working to defend and extend “digital rights,” starting pressure campaigns against internet shutdowns, maintaining an always-on digital security technical support helpline to assist at-risk activists around the world, and providing TOR network exit nodes to help journalists, human rights groups, and others to hide their online tracks and stay ahead of the cybercensors.
Before the election is stolen, before the oligopolies charge us more, before the tanks roll down the street, the digital offensive begins, softening up dissenting positions with propaganda, disinformation, and deepfakes. If we hope to win the battle for hearts and minds, we’ll need to understand information for what it is: a battlefield where either the price of failure or the prize of victory is not simply the World Wide Web, but the world entire.