In the 1990s, the emerging internet was heralded with glowing optimism because it promised a future in which information would be free and in which anyone could communicate whatever they wanted to anyone else.
John Walker, the man who wrote AutoCAD, was originally one of these optimists. But in the 2000s, he saw the internet changing, and his outlook changed accordingly.
In 2003, he wrote an extraordinarily prescient article in which he predicted virtually all of the evils of tech censorship that conservatives and other dissidents are experiencing today.
John Walker’s Dire Warning
In 2003, Walker wrote an article for the magazine Knowledge, Technology & Policy with the ominous title of “The Digital Imprimatur: How Big Brother and Big Media Can Put the Internet Genie Back in the Bottle.” In it, he described the increasing centralization of the internet that was happening and its terrible consequence for the future of both privacy and free speech online.
Big social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have arrogantly decreed anything that challenges the establishment left to be “disinformation.” They have been working overtime to make sure that those who are in power stay in power and that as few people as possible can see through their lies.
Twitter has recently permanently suspended President Trump’s account, triggering a mass exodus of conservatives from the platform and many other similar purges. Many of those who were kicked off went to Parler, a new alternative to Twitter, which pledged to respect the right of free speech. But Amazon has recently chosen to cut off Parler’s ability to stay online, and virtually every other vendor has severed ties with it.
That’s why it’s impossible to read Walker’s article today without wondering whether he is clairvoyant.
He predicted all of this: that large tech companies would collude with the media and politicians to prevent people from spreading unwanted information online, that they would gather up people’s private data and spy on them — all of it.
Possible Reasons for Long-Run Optimism
Walker’s concerns should, of course, all be taken seriously. With the virtual equivalent of a Night of the Long Knives having taken place before our eyes in the last few days, it would be extraordinarily foolish not to. But despite all of the very real problems that Walker foresaw in 2003, there are some rumblings indicating that the basic architecture of the internet is set to change in a way that will return us to the peer-to-peer model that made Walker so optimistic during the 1990s.
Thanks to a set of still relatively new technologies, like blockchain and mesh networking, a group of far-sighted techies who are deeply worried about these trends have begun organizing a revolution from the underground.
These technologies are still in their infancy, but there are programmers working to develop and scale them. Projects like Skycoin and Blockstack are attempting to create a decentralized, blockchain-based version of the internet that doesn’t require big server farms, where no one can be arbitrarily de-platformed, and where every user’s data are safe and encrypted.
Big Tech has certainly gone out of its way to crush all dissent against the prevailing establishment’s view on just about everything. But despite the demoralization that many may feel over this, the battle for free speech, open communication, and the truth is far from over. The digital imprimatur may yet be overcome.