On the Fragility of the Internet

The internet is an amazing place. Read the news, follow your favorite writers, hang out with your friends, watch videos and fall in love. It's all possible on the internet. It feels as if it was there forever and it will never go away.

However with every click of your mouse or key press on your keyboard, you chip away at the internet. With every byte you send and receive the hardware of the internet becomes a little bit worse. One day the hard disk on which a web page is stored, needs to be replaced and a copy needs to be made.

In the past publishing an article meant that a publisher created many copies of a newspaper or magazine or book. Each of the subscribers or readers bought one of those copies. If you wanted to read the article you just had to find a copy somewhere from someone. Publishing happens once. Once an article was published there was no upkeep for the publisher. A publisher doesn't need to pay money to keep the copies available.

Today, on the internet, publishing an article is a starting point. Every article that's published needs to be paid for until the end of time. There are costs associated with keeping an article online: server costs, personnel costs and bandwidth costs. These costs only grow over time.

The current system, where the producer of the article is responsible for it, is very fragile. It's easy for an article to disappear. Even in the normal order of things an article will be lost automatically at some future point in time. It doesn't have to be obvious how an article will be lost, but with a combination of factors it's not hard to see. To make matters worse, some factors need human intervention to fix them. If no one makes an active effort to copy an article, it disappears forever.

For example in the case of a self-publishing person like me. If something happens to me and I can't take care of my server, or my weblog it will just disappear at some future point in time, because of server costs or maintenance. That's just the normal state of things.

A newspaper, which goes out of business, will take their whole collection of articles with them. At that point there need to be taken extra steps to keep their archives online.

The old and the new

The old (paper) system for publishing has two nice properties, because of the way it is.

  1. There are multiple copies, one for each reader of a magazine.
  2. The copies are spread in a random way across the world: geographic redundancy.

The new system on the internet has other properties.

  1. There is one authoritive copy.
  2. There are internal backups (hopefully)
  3. There could be more copies, somewhere, but not for everything.

Compare these two systems with backup strategies and it becomes obvious which is better for the survival of the articles: the old system.

This doesn't mean that I think we should be dissassembling the internet. Not at all. The internet is the most wonderful thing. And we should take every precaution to keep to free (as in freedom), open and useful for everyone.

I think we'll have a good chance of making a better robust and redundant internet, by applying the first property of the old system to the new system. The second property is already taken care of, by the nature of the internet.


My name is Peter Stuifzand. You're reading my personal website.