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YouTube's loss shows a bigger picture

When Pakistan pulled YouTube off the internet, it was a problem. What happened next is the solution
Written by Leader , Contributor

The internet has many paradoxes. In a world dominated by powerful organisations, regulators and national interests, it has grown unplanned, unexpected and unrestrained to become one of the epoch-defining technologies of the age. It has no intrinsic mechanisms of trust and only the most obscure mechanisms of control, yet millions of people trust it with the most intimate details of their lives. Commerce depends on it.

There are many consequences to this unusual state. One is that at the highest level, it seems to lack effective control. The Pakistani government decided to cut off YouTube within its borders, for reasons ostensibly to do with blasphemy but most probably to do with political control — blasphemy short-circuits reason and is thus very useful here. But the mechanism the ISPs chose to implement this censorship involved hijacking the IP address space belonging to YouTube by forcing routers to accept incorrect routes: which leaked out unchecked and contaminated the world. Powerful stuff, blasphemy.

It is tempting to synthesise outrage over this heavy-handed action, and demand an apology. YouTube certainly has a solid case. It is more useful, though, to look at what happened next: there was a mild flurry of discontent from users unable to watch juggling rabbits, followed by a swift diagnosis of the problem. The status quo was rapidly re-established. We trust that the mistaken decision to pass the route poison on by the ISP upstream of Pakistan has taught that ISP a lesson. In other words, the internet healed itself. It is better to have a decent immune system than to attempt to live in a bubble.

The alternative is to have an organisation, with much greater control than exists now over what is and is not permitted. It is not clear how that would work in the world's current political state; it is clear that attempts to establish such an organisation could easily lead to fragmentation and the breakdown of the internet's primary attribute — connectivity comes first.

Huge challenges lie ahead for the net. At some point in the near future a wholesale switch to IPv6 will have to happen. We are terribly unprepared for that and its consequences. Those big organisations, repressive governments and organs of state control which have been so wrong-footed over the net's success are trying hard to reassert their dominance, and to take back the unparalleled individual freedom that it has created.

As we tackle these problems, we must remember and honour the principles that have made the internet an ubiquitous force for change and growth. We must be alert to any attempt to exert more control in the name of stability, reliability, commercial or political benefit, and fight any attempt to short-circuit the reason the net works. A little instability is a small price to pay for a greater freedom.

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