I’ve decided that I would quite like to own my stuff. I would like the things that are mine – things that I have created or acquired – to be under my control, that control being the arbiter of ownership. If I don’t control something, I don’t own it.
This is true, to an extent, of Things in what passes for real life. Many people rent their homes – it’s their home, but it’s not their house – and its been said that the sine qua non of Western capitalist society is property ownership. But even those who own their houses rarely actually do. Their mortgage provider does. They can step in at the drop of a hat and foreclose, forcing you to sell your home and realise assets to repay them.
Thatcher is supposed to have said that anyone over the age of 26 who took the bus to work could be regarded as a failure in life, implicitly setting store by car ownership. But how many people ploughing their way through rat-race-rush-hour hell on four wheels are actually sitting in a company car? Or how many are paying it off in crippling monthly instalments? They don’t own their cars. Their accomplishment is ephemeral, a product of smoke and mirrors. Like money, it is real only so long as others choose to believe so. If they take against you it can be snatched away at a moment’s notice, like a parent confiscating a toy from an uncomprehending child.
If the ownership of physical things is largely a conceit, what about the ownership of intangibles, like data? The idea that you “own” a domain name, for instance, is a misconception of the nature of ownership on the web. I own several domain names, but they all come with built-in expiry dates. So I don’t own them at all. I’ve rented them. As a friend put it to me, a domain name isn’t even owning (or failing to own, I suppose) a car – it’s renting a taxi. You register your domain name with a domain registrar, a service which acts as an agent – possibly one of many – between you and ICANN, the body with responsibility for these things. Who licences ICANN? The US Government. That’s why Rupert Murdoch couldn’t buy the internet and had to settle for Myspace; not because it’s free and open like the air and sunshine, but because the guys who do own it aren’t going to settle for any price. That’s public-sector interference in the free market for you.
Even if you don’t own a domain name, if you’re reading this chances are you have a Facebook or Twitter account, or you’ve stuck some movies on YouTube, or photos on Flickr or Picasa. Have a Google account? Google owns your life (and, for what it’s worth, mine). Using iCloud on a Mac or iOS device? UbuntuOne? You don’t have ultimate control over any of that stuff, so you can’t really be said to own it. More than that, you’ve explicitly, if unwittingly, signed away full ownership rights to much of your data by clicking ‘Agree’ to terms of service and EULAs, while a little voice in the back of you head simpered reassuringly. “It’s nothing to worry about,” it wheedled. “No one really cares about this stuff. It’s not like anyone’s going to hold you to it, or even like there’s anything in there you’d want to do anyway”. I don’t think I’ve read a single EULA in my life.
We are, in a very real sense, complicit in our own infantilisation, subject to the arbitrary whims of a patrician authority. The fact that the agents of this authority may promise to “do no evil”, or have given every impression of being unremittingly fluffy in the past, while reassuring, is irrelevant. We shouldn’t have to take their word for it.
We don’t have to take their word for it. We can circumvent the comfortingly familiar stranglehold that third parties have on our data. We can regain control over the things we create, the things we own, and make them ours again.
How? By hosting them ourselves. Let’s talk in terms of hosting your own, low-traffic personal website, although the broad thrust of these points applies equally well to the functions of sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Right now, you register your domain name with a registrar and, chances are, you either buy hosting from the same company or you redirect to webspace you’ve rented from another – such as your ISP, which might include a couple of hundred meg of webspace as part of your package. Having created your website, you’ll upload it to the webspace using an FTP client of some sort. When people visit your site, they’re actually seeing the copy of it held on your web host’s servers. The published version of your data derives from a few sectors on a hard drive in a server farm some miles from where you live – feasibly halfway around the planet, if that’s your thing.
There’s nothing wrong with this; the web is supposed to make geography irrelevant after all (although that’s crumbling as various regimes realise the power they potentially wield).
But there’s nothing necessary about it, either. Why not skip the step where you copy your site over to a web hosting service? Why not just host it yourself?
The first objection is cost. Your equipment will consume more electricity, and must always be on; although the additional expense is likely to be marginal. Secondly, there is the question of reliability. Chances are that a professional web hosting service will have a better uptime score than your own machine, even if you choose to use a dedicated server; although at least this way it’s your responsibility and if the service goes down you’re in a position to fix it. Thirdly, there’s bandwidth. Your personal pages will take longer to load, your data will take longer to access and sync; although, having said that, cable speeds at least are getting to the point where cavilling about it seems petty.
Another problem is that hosting your own interweb server is against some ISPs’ acceptable use policies. After all, they exist in an industry a large portion of which relies on people not doing exactly this. The stated reason is that a popular home website would place unreasonable demand on the network, impacting on your neighbours’ – their clients – service. While that is undeniably true, and even casual net-users’ bandwidth requirements have rocketed in the past few years thanks to iPlayer and their ilk, I’m not convinced that a low-traffic web server, providing services such as calDAV and location syncing for families and a bit of personal web hosting, are going to impact on bandwidth as much as, say, binge-viewing House of Cards on Netflix.
If, like me, you’re on cable, bandwidth consumption really ought not to be an issue. Virginmedia’s AUP doesn’t seem to explicitly forbid hosting your own services for instance. Of course, in a broader sense, independent hosting is still ultimately dependent on the infrastructure used to pipe the data into and out of your home. A small number of companies have invested considerable resources in setting that up. They own it and they’re not about to give it away, so any attempt to brew your own internet is subject to that control for the foreseeable future. That control can be influenced by consumer demand, of course, but that’s not the only factor, as Dr Peter Cochrane’s evidence to the Communications Select Committee last year demonstrated. A former CTO at BT, he wanted to provide decent broadband to his own rural village, utilising the vast array of fibre optic cable that BT laid down in the late 80s and which has remained unused ever since. It’s not BT’s business model to offer access to that dark cable, so he was forced to seek alternatives. To paraphrase Dr Cochrane: “Fibre, fibre, everywhere, but not an access point to connect”.
I’m not saying that home hosting is trivial to set up and maintain. If it’s going to work for you, you’re going to have to put in some effort. Owning a property incurs far more responsibilities than renting, but people are happy to take those responsibilities on (bitching all the while, of course) because of the perceived benefits that independence brings. Whether you’re happy to put in that effort depends on the extent to which you think you’ll benefit. Some people think these things are best left to the big boys, and that the cost to the individual of doing do is negligible. They think that not because the cost is negligible, but because it’s subtle. It’s also significant. You don’t learn that you need to grow up until you leave home.
While we await the great broadband infrastructure evolution, not holding our breath, there are plenty of ways in which we can begin to claw back ownership of the web, and choose share with others, or not, the fruits of our labours, whatever they might be. Software such as diaspora, Trovebox and – most interestingly – owncloud offers anyone with a decent uplink the opportunity to begin staking out their own corner of the internet rather than sharecropping someone else’s. These projects aren’t the end of the journey, but worthwhile first steps.
The internet is clearly going to play a huge role in our future and that of our children. Our choice is between letting it remain a series of monolithic, corporate structures or encouraging it to become a more vibrant – and, I would argue, resilient – federated community of smaller structures.