War for the Web

How and Why to Make a Movie about the Coming Web Wars: An Interview with Michael Wooldridge

Like most big engineering feats in modern history, the Internet began as a military and university affair in the United States (ARPANET). The World Wide Web would follow about two decades later, when it emerged as a side project out of a European government-funded science program searching for the origins of the universe (CERN). At various moments, private companies have stepped in to shape the way a lot of people use it (from America Online to Facebook), or, in the case of AT&T, not stepped in. The most famous monopoly in communications history declined a chance to “own” the Internet in 1971, because it was not something they could use. Or sell..

Four decades later, that looks like a classic mistake of foresight, but also a telling anecdote about how this “series of tubes” works. The Web is a mint for billion-dollar companies, a sponge for massive amounts of valuable data, and a kind of Wild West of nonprofits, giant corporations, cops, robbers, angry Hollywood honchos, angrier hackers, and repressive governments, locked in a slow-motion showdown to determine how controlled and how democratic the web will be. It’s fitting then that the poster for a new documentary, “War for the Web,” looks like it was ripped out of a Texan saloon on the 19th century frontier.

We met one of the film’s three producers at a recent event hosted by the New Yorker that was also called “War for the Web”, and later at the screening for “Free the Network.”. A few days later, Vanity Fair published a lengthy feature about the future of the web titled World War 3.0. We detect a theme here. With a Kickstarter campaign, the producers are planing to start shooting this spring in preparation for some of the biggest film festivals. We had some questions, so Erin Lee Carr, who co-produced “Free the Network,” emailed Michael Wooldridge, the film’s writer / producer, who came up with the idea to make what looks to be the biggest documentary ever made about the workings and future of the the Internet. — Alex Pasternack

Where and how did this project begin?

I’ve always been pretty connected with technology, just because my entire family are techies. One day I was chatting with my dad, who telecommutes to an office in California from his house outside of New York and he mentioned that his company had lost a bunch of time on a project because a major cable was broken in the Suez Canal, and all Internet communication between the Middle East and India simply stopped. The Internet had to literally be rerouted in the other direction around the world.

I started looking into that, and I came across an article in Wired magazine called “Netscapes: the journey of a bit across America” by Andrew Blum. The photos were beautiful and I realized that there was this incredible story of the physicality of the Internet that had not been told. That was about two years ago and we’ve been working on it ever since.

You have less than 12 hours for your Kickstarter campaign. Should the remaining donations not come in, how do you feel about the film moving forward? Do you have other plans for financing the project?

Of course we want all the support we can get on Kickstarter, and we’re staying optimistic about the whole campaign. The response we’ve gotten from people thus far has been overwhelmingly positive; a lot of industry people have told us that this is a film that really needs to be made.

We have other investors, so we are moving forward with production this spring and summer. No matter what happens with the Kickstarter, we’re going to keep building upon the support we’ve already gotten. If you become a backer, you’ll be first in line to know what’s going on with the film. We also have a newsletter, Facebook page and Twitter, so we encourage everyone to stay connected – we’ll be releasing lots of great previews and sneak peeks in the coming year.

In your Kickstarter video you do man-on-the-street interviews in Times Square to gauge people’s knowledge of the Internet. Why’d you go there and what did you learn about what people know about how the web works?

Times Square was a great location to ask these questions because you get to ask people from all over the country in the space of a few yards. We were able to interview tourists from California, from the Midwest, and native New Yorkers in the space of a few hours. I don’t know that there are many other places in the United States where you can do that.

I’m fairly confident that the responses we got really exemplify the typical American understanding of the Internet and the issues we face. I run into this all the time with people that I know, at parties and bars trying to explain the premise of the film. There are obviously places where people know more and are more active with the issues, but even there the lack of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of how the Internet works in this country is astounding.

What is your first memory associated with technology?

I’m not sure; it’s always been a part of my life. My parents are both techies (my dad has worked in computer programming since the 1970s) so my family had a computer for as long as I can remember. I will say that I remember always getting excited when we would get a new computer every three or so years. That was always a cause of excitement in my house.

How would you explain the Internet to a seven year old?

The Internet is a series of wires, like telephone wires, that connect computers all over the world. When you read a page on the Internet (like Wikipedia), the information starts from another computer somewhere else in the world where it is stored. Then all that information—the words, the pictures, the video and sound—travels at the speed of light through a big web of cables under the ocean, through telephone poles, and then underground until it gets to your house and into your computer.

2012 submarine cable map

Of course, this explanation is best accompanied by an illustration that shows the wires connecting the entire network together. You really need to visualize it to understand it—which is exactly what we are trying to do with the film.

How have your own Internet habits changed since the filming process started? I don’t know about you, but since making “Free the Network” I have become more and more concerned about the security of my data online. Do you feel the same way?

The way that I think about the services and platforms that we use has changed dramatically. Some of the things we do on the Internet are not replaceable, and so you have to just do it for expediency’s sake (email, services like Dropbox—they’re hard to replicate in the real world). That said, I always read the terms of service of the things that I use now, when I didn’t before. I am also really careful to back up my emails to my computer so that if something happens to the service that we use I have a record of what was sent and received.

There are certain things you have to just accept about the way the Internet works. You ultimately trust someone else with your data. I think the most important thing to do is stay informed. Read the legalese and try to understand what it means to host a picture on Facebook, for example.

Are you on Facebook? What is more important to you: Being connected and having a platform for your film, or having the ability to control your data? Is there a possibility for both?

We are absolutely on Facebook. That said, I think that platforms like Facebook are incredible important. They allow folks like us to connect with our fans, to communicate in a really unique way that wasn’t possible just a few years ago.

I think it’s important to recognize the driving forces behind platforms like Facebook. As a Facebook user, you aren’t the customer. There’s a great webcomic that illustrates this perfectly. It’s two pigs in a barn going “Free food! A place to stay! This is great.” The implication is that they’re not the customer, but rather the product. That’s true of Facebook as well. I think it would be great to develop regulations to protect consumers and their data online, but I think the responsibility of recognizing how a platform works is on the shoulders of the individual user for right now.

Many have discussed the fight for the net in text. Why did you decide to create a film based on the subject? Does video have the ability to transcend certain boundaries here that text can’t?

Film gives us a platform that is advantageous for a few reasons. First off, the Internet is a physical entity, and most people don’t realize that so many of the issues you hear about—privacy, open access, infrastructure, policies and regulations—stem from the physical nature of the Internet. Thus it’s really important to show the average user what the Internet looks like. It’s also an incredible thing. We’re talking about cables and wires that stretch for thousands of miles—over mountains, under oceans—and you as an Internet user are physically connected to this network by the wire that comes into your home and connects to your router. That’s pretty incredible and something that I don’t think can be adequately conveyed with text alone.

In addition, we have the advantage of being able to use animations and visual effects to really illustrate what some of these dilemmas look like. We can show you what it looks like when there are too many people trying to access one webpage, or what the Internet looks like when so many people are using Facebook. Those are things that are much harder to explain than to show.

We’re really excited to get the opportunity to illustrate these points in a way that will resonate. A picture is worth a thousand words, and with the right pictures, we’re confident that we can really get people interested in how the Internet works and the challenges it faces.

Do you think the battle over the Internet will ever physically manifest itself in actual warfare?

I think that a realistic possibility is the “balkanization” of the Internet. That is, when countries go to war they will find a way to de-integrate their countrywide networks from the world’s Internet at large as a way of controlling information dissemination and communication. We are already seeing a possibility of this in Iran as they work to segregate the Iranian Internet from the rest of the world.

Recently the general online public rallied to effectively stop SOPA and PIPA in their tracks. Do you think the Internet has the ability to bring people together over policy issues, and not tear us apart?

Without a doubt one of the most powerful things about the Internet is its ability to connect communities worldwide and mobilize people quickly. The Internet has great potential as a democratic platform where all voices can be heard, which can bring us together and allow us to work toward common solutions to problems. It’s a challenge, however, because the relative anonymity of the Internet often allows personal responsibility and accountability go out the window.

Whether this platform remains as unrestricted and democratic as it has been in the past is a major question. As you can see with SOPA/PIPA, the Internet is at a major crossroads in terms of how it will function moving forward in the future. Right now is the time that we, as end users, need to decide what we want the Internet to look like in this country and around the world. The rules are being written now, and unless we speak up, they will be written without us. We have to make sure that we actively make our voices heard.

Interview by Erin Lee Carr.

Article by Mother Board