How to publish on the web without permission


One of the great things about the Web is that you don't really need to ask anyone's permission before you use it. There are no fees to pay for the HTML spec, browsers don't cost any money (they used to!), and most websites don't charge a fee to read, or use.

But is it really true that you don't need permission to publish? Let's take a look at how easy it is to get content onto the web without permission.

What is the Internet?

Connect two laptops with an Ethernet cable. Congratulation - you have a network!

Now you need to connect it to another network. So you run a cable between your network and someone else's. The Internet is the largest network of networks.

But how do you connect to this global network?

Devices and Internet Access

A domestic Internet connection requires you to seek permission from an ISP (Internet Service Provider).

In the UK, you can buy a smartphone and a SIM for cash. You don't need to show any ID, prove that you're over 18, nor register with a central authority. That's not the case in many parts of the world.

You can even skip the SIM, and leach off free WiFi in most city centres. This isn't quite permissionless, but it is close.

If you don't want to purchase a device, many libraries have computers.

Library computers either require you to register - so not anonymous - or pay a nominal fee. Either way, you still have to ask permission from the library staff.

A word on Internet connections

When you connect to free public WiFi, you're often told to provide personal details or an email address to connect. You don't need to give your real details. That's the only way I know to get online without cost, or exchange of personal data.

Conclusion, part 1

Getting online generally doesn't require much permission. There are enough communal WiFi spots to make access pretty easy. But the owner of that connection can kick you off at will.

There's no way that I know of for an individual to own their own connection to the Internet. And, if you did join something like the London Internet Exchange - you're bound by their terms of service.

There are financial barriers. A crappy second-hand phone can be picked up for £20, and a data SIM for around a tenner. Not an extremely high, but not free. While you don't need a licence to own a computer or phone, the SIM provider can terminate your connection whenever they like.

Publishing

Twitter is free! Most people can register on the service - but it requires an active SIM card in order to "confirm" your identity. As mentioned earlier, a SIM and phone can be had cheaply - but you need permission to use the SIM. And there's the pesky notion of your phone provider tracking your activity. And of Twitter mediating your content.

Sites like WordPress, Medium, Facebook, Google, and GitHub require you hand over personal data and they are able to remove your content on a whim. You have to ask them for permission to publish - and agree to lengthy legal contracts.

Self Hosting

While software like WordPress is free (libre and gratis!) - having a server to run the software on usually requires permission.

Web hosts require you to adhere to their terms of service. Yes, even the magical ones in the cloud. You don't need permission to run web-server programs, but you have to agree to the computer providers' terms of service.

If you want to avoid that, you can host web content on your phone or laptop - and make it available to the Internet from a leached WiFi connection.

But how do people get directed to the content on your laptop?

Domain Names

When you connect to the Internet, you get given an IP (Internet Protocol) address - for example 198.51.100.1. No one can remember these numbers, so we use domain names. The DNS (Domain Name System) maps shkspr.mobi to an IP address.

Getting a domain name without permission

Buying a domain name is a financial transaction. That usually means giving up some privacy - although some providers give out free domain names. Either way, you are beholden to the terms of service from the registrar.

You never really own a domain name. WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) have a copyright dispute process which means your domain name can be taken from you if it breaches certain laws.

Even if you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for your own Top-Level Domain, you're still beholden to ICANN and their policies.

Conclusion, part 2

The Internet is an agreement.

You have to agree to something to get an IP address, and you have to agree to something to get a domain name, and you have to agree to something to use someone else's machine.

Using your own machine is possible - but comes with financial costs and practical limitations. But I don't know any way to connect to the network-of-networks without permission.

The Glorious Future

Many ructions over the last few weeks about whether certain sites should be "allowed" on the Internet. The Internet is a (mostly) decentralised agreement in how to behave. If you violate the norms of that agreement, it is to be expected that other parties will refuse to send or receive data to your network.

Perhaps the future is more decentralisation? But there will inevitably come a point when someone will decide that they don't want to carry your bits. All networks are a weak form of distributed politeness.


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