By Ethan Harmon
The Internet is not what it used to be. Now that the days of dial-up and AOL are far behind us we have all upgraded to high-speed Internet, Wi-Fi and decent web browsers (seriously, who uses Internet Explorer anymore?), we have shifted into a totally different age of the Internet.
Now, we can find literally anything there, streaming of new TV content, torrents of any and every program, movies that are just now hitting theaters, an unlimited supply of music, etc. But the Internet also is not a safe place. Malware, viruses, users who steal information, hackers and a wide range of dangerous content floods the World Wide Web which has been the cause of some serious debate when it comes to net neutrality. The government takes action, protests counteract the action, new sites appear with loopholes around government sanctions which are then shut down, and the cycle continues. So what the hell is going to happen to the Internet?
Well, to understand where it is going, we need to understand where it has been and what has happened. You learn history for a reason, right? By the time people migrated to Firefox and said goodbye to Internet Explorer, file sharing was commonplace. Limewire, Frostwire, Bearshare and dozens of other file sharing services were in almost every household.
People didn’t feel like dropping money on iTunes for an album, and these services offered a way to download entire libraries of music for no cost at all. Eventually, movies, TV shows, pornography, and games were uploaded to these platforms. It was easier than ever to download whatever you wanted. That was until people began receiving subpoenas for downloading movies, such as The Hurt Locker (hey, it was late 2008 and early 2009 and a popular film). Suddenly, file sharing was more difficult and it had consequences.
But Limewire and the other third-party platforms were on the way out anyway, and uTorrent became the new way to receive those valuable downloads. Essentially, users download a smallsize file, install the application, go to a torrent hosting site and simply begin downloading whatever was wanted. It was an easy set-up and it worked wonders.
Torrent sites began to pop up all over the Web, including The Pirate Bay and Demonoid. Other streaming services began to form as well, such as Megaupload. For a good while, it was great to have free reign over Internet content. Money was not an issue and everything was readily available. It was hardly controlled – except for those hosting the servers – and it was, well, downright magical. But all good things come to an end, and WikiLeaks slammed the media hard.
For those who do not remember much of 2010, a little site called WikiLeaks hit every media outlet around the country with some very shocking revelations. Army Private Chelsea Manning was able to retrieve extremely sensitive information regarding United States foreign policy, monitored conversations, counterintelligence and more, which was uploaded to WikiLeaks. This allowed anyone and everyone to read and watch exactly what the United States was up to. Of course, the private was jailed and the government went into “we need to fix this and fast” mode.
There was worldwide outrage over the information released, and the now infamous hacker group Anonymous made its big debut. Although the group was around for several years, hacking sites like 4Chan, it became a loosely-connected network of Internet activists and hackers as the years passed. When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested and put on trial, Anonymous made its move, hacking various government websites (internationally, mind you) along with attacking credit card companies and PayPal.
Yeah, it was not exactly good publicity for regular Internet users, especially if you were a fan of torrents at the time. Torrents became the target of the U.S. government, something that Congress could rally behind so it could prevent the theft of any more information, especially after the bad reputation that stuck during the WikiLeaks ordeal.
It was on Oct. 26, 2011 that the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was introduced. The Act, which floated throughout Congress for months on months, basically wanted to expand on online law enforcement, allowing agencies (FBI, CIA, etc.) to monitor specific people or websites and police them. The idea behind this was to prevent information theft, stop copyright infringement, and essentially have a degree of control over the Internet. And, as you might expect, it was not received well. There was a massive uproar after SOPA was proposed, and the nation collectively yelled, “That’s bullsh**!” The idea of the government watching everything clicked, everything downloaded, spying and waiting to pounce was just too much. The idea of privacy would vanish if it was successfully passed.
Luckily, champions of net neutrality rose up to challenge the bill. Google held a mass petition to counteract it. Wikipedia, Google and an estimated 7,000 other websites went dark for an entire day, showing the world what the Internet would be like without their services. Companies that were in favor of SOPA were boycotted and lost a lot of loyalty and business. But, when shots are fired, it is only natural for other shots to be fired back. The massively popular streaming site Megaupload, and the ever-popular torrent site Demonoid, were officially and completely shut down, forever banned from the Internet. And, damn, what a statement. It was almost as if the government was telling the people, “You can’t stop us.”
Even with the protest of SOPA, there was a lingering sense of hopelessness to the situation. It was at this time, in early 2012, Anonymous hacked various websites, such as CBS, in retaliation for the Megaupload shut down.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of Internet warfare, SOPA and its counterpart, PIPA, finally bit the dust and faded into memory. And again, it was back to business downloading torrents and streaming files using free information sites like Wikipedia and surfing the net. Although there was a major dent for streaming/torrents since two major sites shut down.
This was The Pirate Bay’s time to shine. With servers established in Sweden, it was not subject to the pursuits of the U.S. government to shut it down, although it did try quite a few times to do so. The Pirate Bay was, and still is, the go-to, all-free site for torrents. But, if you have been paying attention, you have already noticed the pattern and realized that the battle of the Internet was not over.
May 2013 revealed something terrible and shocking to the world. In fact, this revelation has not left us since then and still carries on a debate to this day. This is when the media, Internet users, hell, the world was left to rage and fear what was unseen in their Internet browsers. This is when Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Administration was constantly spying on everything and everyone on the Internet and collecting data. No one was safe, and they still are not able to escape the all-seeing eye.
Data collection was constant and wide-spread. Forget that Playstations were hacked. Forget that Apple had issues with user information. The NSA had it all and saw everything. The factor that made this worse was the fact that it was not denied by the government.
And, to an extent, the reaction to this information was a bit over-blown. Google has been known to track users since, well, the beginning. Google logs every single thing searched and monitors Gmail, caching every bit and allowing algorithms to understand and track interests (this is how ads become tailored to users). Regardless of browser, Google can directly track everything searched and clicked. With this in mind, the NSA scandal just seems to be an evolution of what Google has always done. But, that does not mean it is right and that it doesn’t infringe on privacy. It completely removes privacy. There is no privacy whenever your browser and the government are watching every click and key pressed.
The Pirate Bay had an answer to all of the madness. It released its own browser to combat the ever-looming “Big Brother.” The browser would allow users to freely search through information on the net and download torrents. And it has been a hit ever since. Due to the growing NSA scandal, people are more and more afraid. Their privacy has been compromised and the notion of a browser with no restrictions feels like a safe haven.
So, now that we have explored the cyclical nature of Internet battles, there is really only one question that lingers: Where are we going now? And that is a very difficult question to answer.
“History repeats itself.” Yes, it is a cliché statement, but it holds merit. Think about the nature of the Internet, government regulation, hackers, activists and protests. What’s next? Well, there are a few possibilities. A New York based company, known as MDIF, is attempting an ambitious project titled Outernet. The idea is simple: launch hundreds of small satellites into orbit and provide the entire world with free Wi-Fi. But, can it be done? And what will happen if it works? Where does the government fit into this and what will we do if we can use it? If the Outernet fails, then we might just be caught in a never-ending battle with restriction, with only a few champs of net neutrality pushing for Internet freedom.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: either someone, or some company, needs to do something drastic, or we will be caught in a loop, battling for rights, trying to stop the madness. Can the madness be stopped? Can we prevent government regulation? Can we stop the spying? Is it possible to move to a new, shining future with free information on the web? I don’t know. But I do know that we cannot achieve anything if we continue to fight the same battles over and over again.
Something needs to change if we truly want an Internet that isn’t controlled by something or someone with an agenda. And it will only change if we use a different approach. Until then, get used to someone watching.