Breaking the Internet, one absurd claim at a time

I’m not much of a geek, so I can’t pretend to understand the technical minutae of the internet intimately.

But one thing I do know is that it was designed to be fault-tolerant, decentralised and robust. The basic technology was developed by the US Defense Department, some say to survive nuclear war but certainly to survive dodgy connections, and it seems to have worked.

While we all have our frustrations with the internet sometimes, and whole countries have been affected by interference from their governments, I have never heard of the whole internet breaking down. Even as bits of it fail, the rest carries on regardless.

The internet, by design, is hard to break.

Which means it’s hard to imagine something which would “Break the Internet”.

Yet that phrase, “Break the Internet” is one I have heard with increasing frequency. It is used as a dire threat, a prediction of doom, the ultimate and unimaginably awful unintended consequence of a terrible and naïve mistake.

Often, it is used as a way of explaining to policymakers, who by-and-large are even less geeky than me, why they should not do something they have proposed.

I first heard it when I was involved with the ACAP project. ACAP is a simple way of making content permissions machine-readable, thereby solving the problem of how automated services like Google are supposed to comply with terms of use.

We were on a trip to the USA to introduce ACAP to various industry and government people. It was going down well, in Europe as well as the USA. It was seen as a way of solving a sticky problem without having to legislate and avoided lots of awkward issues like DRM.

Google, who had initially been keen on ACAP and even delegated one of the search engineers to a committee defining its technical development, had turned against it. Presumably, although they never said this, they realised that if they were aware of terms of use they might have to comply with them.

Public statements were made by the likes of Eric Schmidt saying that there were technical problems with ACAP (even though Google had helped design the technical aspects of it) but implying that once they were solved Google would support ACAP. In fact they never engaged with ACAP to try to solve the supposed technical issues, nor explained what they were.

Anyway, the first time I heard the phrase “Break the Internet” was on that US trip. We had visited Google, and privately, on the way to dinner, I was told that the distinguished engineers were saying internally that ACAP would “ Break the Internet”. So however polite they were being, the engineers did not support it and there was little chance of getting much progress.

Obviously such a dire consequence would be cataclysmic, and nobody could knowingly support something which would lead to it.

But we were surprised because we couldn’t think of how ACAP could possibly do such a thing. How ANYTHING could do such a thing? My conversation was an informal one with a non-technical person (a lesser species at Google) and he was unable to explain what it meant – but it sounded bad.

We asked more technical people at Google but they were unable or unwilling to explain. Silence was the stern reply, and the dialogue pretty much dried up after that.

However we did hear the phrase “Break the Internet” again. This time it came from government officials, who told us that while they liked the idea of ACAP they had been told that it would “Break the Internet”.

We asked if this warning had come with an explanation, they said no. When we suggested that it would be a good idea to set up a meeting to discuss this with whoever had said it so that, once we had established the problem, we could fix it they agreed. ACAP after all, was about the end not the means. But the meetings never happened.

I reached the conclusion that ACAP was not some terrible time-bomb ticking under the internet. Quite clearly it couldn’t break anything at all (not least because technically it didn’t really do anything more than a copyright notice in a book – all it did was make licences machine-readable).

What it MIGHT have broken, or at least changed a little bit, is one aspect of Google’s business rationale. The bit which justifies them accessing any website, and using content by default for their various search products, without asking first, without paying any attention to restrictions or conditions which those sites might have specified in their terms of use and without paying money or offering anything other than traffic in return.

But the damage was done. Every politician and policy-maker wanted to be friends with the internet and with Google. All of them wanted to appear progressive and technically ept. None of them wanted to go down in history as the person who unwittingly “Broke the Internet”, and none of them were geeky enough to ask even the simplest questions to explore the substance of this ludicrous claim, or willing to facilitate a conversation which might lead to an answer.

So, even though they liked the idea of ACAP they were scared of supporting it in case something bad happened. Google’s rivals didn’t want to implement it if Google did not. The well intentioned and in my mind quite benign effort which ACAP represented became controversial and demonised.

The politicians and official, I get the impression, just looked the other way, and hoped that in time everyone would learn to just be friends.

Something rather good was lost, temporarily at least, as the result of a silly catchphrase – “Break the Internet”.

Anyway… it turned out that the absurd, hyperbolic and completely false assertion, in private, that ACAP would “Break the Internet” worked so well that the phrase caught on.

Taking advantage of the fact that many people seem to regard Google and everyone who works for it as some sort of super-species of superior intelligence and insight, unattainable by normal humans, the phrase came out in relation to other “threats” to Google’s (and others’) interests.

Recently David Drummond, Google’s chief lawyer, told an audience at Davos that the European proposals on privacy, specifically the “right to be forgotten” would – yes – “Break the Internet”. Again, clearly absurd, but seemingly taken seriously by those without the confidence to challenge it.

In relation to PIPA and SOPA there were numerous articles and blog posts making, spookily, the same prediction. These pieces of legislation, designed to reduce copyright piracy and help media organisations survive, would “Break the Internet”.

We can all chuckle at this, but it’s not funny. However little this claim stands up to scrutiny, those it is made to rarely if ever have the confidence to challenge it. It’s preposterousness is exceeded only by its effectiveness. It is a crazy, disingenuous, self-interested, untruthful and alarmingly potent claim.

So I want to challenge it, and other equally absurd claims like “the end of free speech” which runs a close second when it comes to silly predictions, and I want to show it up for the dishonest and false allegation it invariably is.

I want to appeal to everybody, especially policymakers and their staff, to not just disregard it but positively reject it as you would any other obviously ridiculous claim. Put it to the test, probe and enquire, find out what is really meant and if you discover that the reality doesn’t live up to the claim then you should deprecate not just the claim but all the evidence or claims put forward by that source.

Demand honesty, demand rigour, demand truth and punish those who would seek to deceive you by ignoring them.


5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Amanda Williams,

    Nice article, Dominic. We are supposed to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” to quote The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile, he’s the one making money off us content creators who have no choice but to abide by their collection policies. Who’s making money off our content? Internet providers for one. What about the multitude of sites online who make tons of advertising money from people searching for song lyrics? Often the lyrics are printed incorrectly, with the wrong copyright information and songwriters names (if any at all are listed), and certainly without licensing. Why is nobody talking about that?

    • Thank you. I was looking at some comments Eric Schmidt made about the proposed German levy (see another post) and I saw that his net worth according to Wolfram Alpha is about $7bn. Whereas Axel Springer, the most progressive and admirable newspaper publisher in Germany, is valued at €3.8bn according to the FT.

      The man behind the curtain is certainly doing OK!

      Truth is that the internet has loaded the dice which is why being as content creator looks like a bad plan if you want to make money. Its absurd and we should fight it.

  2. There are only two ways to “break” the Internet. 1. Pull the plug. If all electrical generation on the planet earth stops, then the Internet stops along with all of modern industrialized society. Save the terrorist and a few major lunes, I can’t think of anyone who would want that. The only plauable way that could really happen is if aliens from space arrive to take over the planet and had the power to stop electicity. 2. The detonation of thermonuclear weapons will destroy the Internet. We don’t need aliens from space to do that. If cooler head prevail, we should not have to survive a post atomic war environment that has no electicity.

    The Internet is made of the physical structures of hard lines and wireless technology, and the countless websites, personal email addresses, and the millions of people who are using it nonstop. The Internet has a billion plus heads and cannot be killed.

    Bringing law and order to the Intenet does not break the Intenet. What it does break is the strangle hold of criminal operations who are engaged in thefts, cyber attacks, and perpetrating lies to destroy whomever they hate. Law and order would also force the sympathisers and facilitators of these crimes to run and hide. The phrase “breaking the Internet” is in itself a lie, and those who uses it to defend the wild west approach to Internet are those who does not have good moral training. They are not welcome at my table, unless they are ready to surrender to the correct idea that good law and reasonable regulation is best for a stable future.

  3. John Rose,

    This ‘Breaking the internet’ statement just seems like another load of hokum put about by a commercial ‘internet’ company and taken up by ignorant politicians who love soundbites. A current idea in Britain is that all email should be available & be inspectable by government agencies without a court ‘warrant’ (apologies for this word which I used as I’m not a lawyer). This seems to be unjustifiable on a t least 2 counts:
    1. Government agencies need a court ‘warrant’ to inspect standard mail & phone conversation. email should have the same constraints for inspection as mail.
    2. It would not enable decrypting of 128 bit encrypted email. Surely, any intelligent criminal would be doing this. Thus the government inspection would not even work effectively. Web site monitoring can also be sidesteppd.

  4. Kilravok,

    @John Rose
    Actually, the way the USA handles the legal aspects around intercepting and reading of e-mails is the same as they handle it with normal post cards, They are not sealed in envilopes and thus not secured under any form of privacy law. The goverment has every right to read post cards and e-mails at a whim without any warrant.
    Furthermore, the goverment is fully capable of decrypting 128 bit encryption, as is every half-skilled hacker who puts his mind to it. The only secure way to prevent others from seeing the content of your e-mail is to never write it, keep your computer disconnected from any form of network, render it incapable of remote or wireless access and never enter any disk (floppy/cd/dvd/etc) into it especially not if you intend to gave same disk away to someone else afterwards. Scurity systems only delay and slow down but never stop those eager and determined enough to get in.
    It is therefor not neccessary to actually bother with encryption or security systems unless you are A) hoping to get rich by law suit or B) planning a terror attack and don’t want anybody to know.

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