In the last year there’s been an increasingly passionate debate over the possibility of a two-tier internet. However, research carried out by graduate students at MIT, suggests we’ve actually been running dual internets for almost a decade.
Proponents of a two-tier web argue that the close ties between the Internet and the economy necessitates a premium channel. Opponents argue that data equality is a cornerstone of the Web.
Now, a two year study conducted by MIT, in partnership with Magdalen College, Oxford — initially intended to investigate the potential consequences of a fractured web — has concluded that multiple internets already exist.
The Web can be thought of as a network wired in parallel; if a single link fails (even a backbone server) data can reroute itself automatically.
The flaw in the system is that in several physical locations, known as choke points, the Web isn’t wired in parallel, it’s wired in series. The most well-known choke point is the TAT-14 (14th Transatlantic Telecommunications Cable) fibre optic cable that enters the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey, and reemerges in south western England and northern Denmark.
In 1994, a significant subnet — a network originally part of the main Internet but subsequently disconnected — was created in the East Caribbean, when the choke point connecting several islands to the mainland was accidentily severed by a Paraguayan navy submarine.
Whilst the disconnection of whole land masses is now unlikely due to the proliferation of fiber optics, there are still choke points where isolated communities connect to the Internet.
More importantly, the MIT research shows us that disconnections do not need to be permanent in order to reroute data traffic permanently. A disconnection of a few milliseconds can be enough for servers to discontinue a particular route. When several choke points disconnect, the network gradually bisects itself.
The 2nd web
The MIT study began by cataloging the analytics data of a number of backbone servers to monitor the spread of secondary data such as viruses, crash reports, and software updates. It’s at this point that the assistant head of the project, Miles Lany, began to see strange results:
What was really odd, were our stats: one backbone in Utah was reporting a 8.7% usage rate for Internet Explorer 6.
Having been out of date for a decade, according to Microsoft’s own countdown to its expiry, IE6 should have a global usage rate of <0.1%.
We knew that nearly 90% of web users weren’t regularly visiting Flash sites, not for at least a decade, so where were these data packets originating?
The breakthrough came when Lany compared the team’s data with similar reasearch being carried out in Oxford. The US team’s data was all based in North America, whereas the Oxford team’s data was primarily Scandinavian. The disparity demonstrated that on each continent there was at least one pocket of the Internet that had been disconnected from the main Internet and was coexisting in parallel.
The web that time forgot
Research is now starting to identify the location and potential access points for the 2nd web. The date at which the 2nd web disconnected from the Internet we use today is placed somewhere around 2004, prior to the widespread adoption of cloud computing and automated updates — explaining the prevalence of Internet Explorer 6.
Imagine a web on which the Internet Explorer 6 is the defacto browser. The possibilities are terrifying. — Miles Lany, MIT
Estimated to be as large as up to 7% the size of the main Internet, the smaller demand for innovation on the 2nd web has meant that progress has been far slower than for us.
Imagine a web where Flash is still used to build websites, where IE holds a >90% market share, where web standards are yet to be widely championed. Imagine a web where fixed-width sites reign supreme and responsive design is yet to arrive. Imagine a web where the blink tag is still valid markup. Lany says:
The current theory is that back in the mid-00s everyone was rushing to get online. But the infrastructure just wasn’t there, so the redundancies got weaker and weaker. Somewhere along the lines, interruptions occurred that started cutting off parts of the Internet from the rest of us. It could be as simple as someone’s Mom unplugging the modem to dust it.
The 2nd webbers may appear to be perfectly normal members of society. You might sit next to one on the bus, your boss could be one, or even your neighbour. They almost certainly aren’t aware that the web that they experience is a microcosm of the full Internet.
The first contact project
Having secured partial funding from the W3C, the ultimate goal of the MIT team is to launch a first contact mission. To that end, a nationwide appeal for Windows XP notebooks held in storage lockers, garages, and basements has been launched.
The team will use the notebooks to set up MSN Messenger accounts in an attempt to connect with 2nd web users.
Adhering to the prime directive, the researchers headed by Lany, will begin by establishing dialog without interfering with the 2nd web’s natural environment. Lany explains:
We’ll be discussing the ‘new’ Facebook, the ‘latest’ Xbox 360, and the ‘new’ YouTube service. What we will not be discussing is Android, Twitter, or the Apple Watch; you can imagine the damage that would do!
Culture shock will be the team’s primary concern, with efforts taken to avoid exposing 2nd webbers to technology too advanced for them; clinical psychologists have even warned that the jump from IE6 to Chrome 41, could be sufficiently unsettling as to be comparable to shell shock.
What should you do if you encounter a 2nd webber? Don’t encourage them to upgrade; emergency plans are currently being devised to help them to upgrade gradually. And certainly don’t give them your Twitter handle, it could endanger their sanity.
Update: In case it wasn’t already clear, this article was an April Fools prank.