402 Payment Required

It seems there originally was a business model for the Web that didn’t involve pillaging, violating and ravishing any sense of personhood and privacy you thought you might have had.

Remember The World Wide Web? That thing that was supposed to connect all, digitally holding hands across borders and all that? Well, believe it or not, at one point, there weren’t going to be ads and all the social engineering and exploitation they require, and you could pay for stuff in a browser, meaning it might have actually happened that way.

402 Payment Required

Reserved for future use. The original intention was that this code might be used as part of some form of digital cash or micropayment scheme, as proposed for example by GNU Taler[36], but that has not yet happened, and this code is not usually used. (Wikipedia)

This little known browser error code, 402, much like the 404 one you get when a page is unavailable, has been a very large thing I’ve been obsessed with wrapped in so much obscurity it’s almost laughable, especially for how large the impact on our lives has been. The internet as we know it, or you could say the surveillance state it has become, is purely because of the lack of development of this relatively simple internet standard. The ramifications are intense and huge. Imagine magazines could pay journalists a living wage for one. Or, I don’t know, a company doesn’t need to know everything about you to make money. And non-panic inducing news existed.

“Content,” for lack of a better word, was never a plan for the Internet, or the Web for that matter. It was always an afterthought, it was something you put on web pages because you could. This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the spinning skull gifs and roadworker GIFs that I loved so much. I won’t because I loved the rainbow divider lines more. What was even less of a thought was how this content was going to be paid for. The Internet and the Web you see are both products of the worlds of Academia and Research where they generally don’t think of this stuff, bless them.

Here is a terse and likely not terribly comprehensive history of how this happened:

There have been forms of internet and forms of the World Wide Web, basically experimentations, for decades. Then came a protocol that allowed people to make and link documents or pages and then eventually came making even more complex web pages and blogging, and people expressing themselves. This is the clear precursor to social media, that is people putting it all out there via writing, online. Magazines sort of started appearing and the original online publications like The Onion, which by the way was originally an actual paper newspaper.

There was never the idea to have it work like real life, where there is some words you want to read, and then you have to give something, usually money to get the words to make the reading happen. While ad-supported free newspapers were always a thing, they weren’t ever the entire basis for publishing at large. What developed was ads as the only feasible way to support the creation of things to read and look at online and ads required more and more data harvesting to make any money.

This particular a16z podcast episode lays it out quite well, particularly around 00:16:50.

So the original thinking was that it would be built to exchange info securely and encryption could be built in making transactions able to happen within the actual browser, as in not requiring an app or plugin or whatever. But of course, just so happens the International Traffic in Arms Regulations made encryption and its export equal to missiles and napalm. Netscape tried to work with Visa and Mastercard to allow micro-transactions to work in the browser, but to no avail. Apparently their tech guy “Joe” didn’t get what a browser did and clicked link but with his finger, he didn’t know what a mouse is. The banks didn’t want it. That means that nobody got anything and we now have likely 90 times the problems we wouldn’t otherwise have.

So far crypto currencies are one of the few digital money enabled ways of allowing you to pay for digital things today. It works, but it’s a pain in the ass. And the overwhelming majority of people, despite concerted upticks, still don’t have the wallets, the coins, nor the patience to do so though. However, the exchange of value/money and something digital is one of the main reasons for a blockchain. It’s not an afterthought. But it’s there, and maybe, just maybe it points to some way of making that 402 error appear and then people start paying for word, opinions and news online that doesn’t drive people to craziness.