Forking the Internet

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= history of a meme that came out in 2011


"here we have what I call the Holy Trinity of Internet Oppression: censorship, espionage, and monopoly. Any one of these provides sufficient impetus to fork the Internet. Together, they invoke a tidal wave of necessity." (


Tim Burden:

'The Open Mesh Project team never explicitly said they were building a new Internet, merely an Internet-like digital communications system over wireless network technology. But it’s a short leap indeed to the idea of building a new Internet, something which could actually compete with and eventually replace the Internet we all know and use every day.

And it wasn’t long before somebody articulated that very idea of building a new Internet, one not controlled by governments or corporations. In a Feb. 7, 2011, piece, The Evolution Will Be Socialized, Douglas Rushkoff writes: “Here on Shareable, and then again in an OpEd for, I suggested we ‘fork’ the Internet – that we accept the fact that the net is built on a fundamentally hierarchical architecture, surrender it to the corporations who run it, and consider building something else for ourselves”.

To be fair, it doesn’t appear that Rushkoff was the first to use the exact term “fork the Internet”. That credit must go to a reader who commented on one of Rushkoff’s earlier pieces. But it does seem to be the first time that a writer of some renown used the term.

Forking, in this context, is a software concept. It refers to the process of copying a piece of code or a program that is in development, and then developing it separately from the original code base to form a new program.

Like a tree, the original branch from which the new project was forked continues on and may itself fork again. The new project may also fork at some point in the future. We find this on the Wikipedia page about software forking: “The term implies not merely a development branch, but a split in the developer community, analogous to a religious schism”.

Implicit in the idea of forking the Internet, the old Internet, the one Rushkoff claims has been co-opted by corporations, lives on.

This is why Rushkoff uses the term ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’ in the title of his piece. Just as in biological evolution, the two branches may co-exist for some time before one proves superior to the other, and wins.

It might be the old branch, which has an advantage because it has already changed the environment around it to suit its needs. Or it might be the new branch, which has incorporated changes which address serious problems in the old branch.

This implies that the old Internet will still be around for some time, should the Internet fork. Nobody will be forced to move onto the new peer-to-peer Internet.

At first it will only be early adopters - the geeks and people in highly oppressed regions who need the new infrastructure to communicate - who will use the P2P Internet. It will, at first, be slow, intermittent and unreliable. It won’t have many apps at first. Even the Web will likely need to be rewritten to work with it, let alone social media services such as Facebook and Twitter on which we have come to rely.

But, in retrospect, that was exactly how Internet 1.0 started out. Only the geeks used the Internet back in the 80s. It was restricted, slow, and required considerable technical acumen to use. It wasn’t until e-mail and the Web came along, the Internet’s first killer apps, that it gained popular traction and smart people eventually made Internet software easy for Grandma to use. There is no reason to believe that the P2P Internet won’t follow a similar trajectory.


The alternatives to liberal democracy leave me wanting: communism puts too much power in the hands of the State; anarchy (or libertarianism) too much in the hands of the corporations. Neither seem to address the imbalance of power that we think is at the root of the current economic and environmental crises.

So I want to fork, rather than overthrow. I want systems - like the P2P Internet - that work inside the current infrastructure, systems which tend to redress the imbalances. I think we can lessen the hold that corporations and governments have on our lives while still letting them do the good work they can do - and that worker co-ops and community-supported agriculture and the like probably cannot do - such as large office buildings, transportation systems, space programs, and expensive fundamental science research.

I was discussing some of these issues with a friend who came up with the phrase ‘fork freedom’. I loved the term. It reflects three ideas: first, that we can fork rather than revolt; second, that by improving the robustness and autonomy of the Internet, we enhance the freedom of those who might otherwise be oppressed; and third, that forking the Internet can serve as a model of how to change the system from the inside and help restore an economy of balance.

So, since then, I have been using the #forkfreedom hashtag when tweeting news about SOPA, or the Investigative Powers act, or the Arab Spring, or the P2P Internet. I hope you will join me." (