In the 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World Wide Web, the internet — as we now call it — has never been in more chaos.
The causes for the current crisis have been several years in the making, and they are encapsulated into several words: trust, privacy, free speech, and dis-information.
The recent woes of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which saw droves of users desert for competing messaging app Signal, was the latest culmination of the chaos.
Millions deserted WhatsApp over the weekend for rival Signal, which subsequently crashed, and Telegram after billionaire Elon Musk criticized WhatsApp’s privacy policies.
It didn’t matter that WhatsApp claims they are being misunderstood — the fact that they are owned by Facebook is now enough to excite mass consumer suspicion.
It was just the latest controversy after Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook ban and Amazon’s refusal to host the so-called “free speech” site Parler, to which Trump supporters in his MAGA world had gravitated.
“Big Tech” is now a dirty word on many lips, and there is a move on to break the power of the platforms we all use daily, and which are now a vital part of the economic infrastructure.
At the heart of all this are so many contradictions, and they are not easy to disentangle from each other. The internet has so many stakeholders now — private, public, commercial, and political — that the competing needs are increasingly hard to reconcile.
No one trusts
First, to the idea of trust: Internet users have very little confidence that what they do online is not being monitored and recorded for various purposes, mainly for commercial marketing and in some areas for political reasons.
The value of data is exploding, but so many different parties want to use it.
Nirvana in the commercial world is the ability to market directly to consumers, and they now have both the data and the algorithmic ability to do this very effectively.
Marketers think consumers should be grateful for this. It cuts out blanket marketing, which is irrelevant, and makes sure consumers receive information relevant only to them.
However, in practice, many people strongly object to this and think it is tantamount to being spied on. The reaction to seeing an advertisement for a product or a travel destination only minutes after a Google search or even a conversation with someone is usually annoyance and suspicion, not delight.
Then there is trust in what you are reading. Is it fake news and disinformation designed to manipulate you? The reality is that it must be quite often, and once again — as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed — people are often targeted for this.
So, on the one hand, people are joining Facebook groups of like-minded people. On the other, this is an echo chamber open to unscrupulous and deliberate manipulation and an element of pure randomness thrown in.
Undefined free speech
All of which raises the concept of free speech. Where does it stop, and incitement to bigotry, intolerance, and violence begin?
To be sure, much of the free speech on the internet is people distributing misinformation from absurd conspiracy theories. But at the same time, in a free society, people are also allowed to be ignorant and wrong (in others’ opinions).
“Free Speech” has also become a refuge for harassment, hatred, and lies. People invoke free speech as a sacred right, but it is clear that it is simplistic and dangerous.
So what can be done? Because something must since otherwise, the digital world we all rely on is in real danger of imploding.
It should be clear that the Consumer Data Right regulation is simply not enough in terms of regulation.
Most consumers don’t trust it, don’t understand it, and feel undone and helpless in the face of the long list of terms and conditions from vendors and platforms which they probably do not even read or understand.
Here are two ideas, from the keyboard of a journalist and not a policymaker or a technologist.
Firstly, “privacy as a service” is one of the big buzzwords of 2021, and yet, in reality, it’s a compliance service for corporates and public organizations who must do it and can afford it.
What if this extended to consumers in the same way as they use anti-virus software, and if consumers were able to access pro-active privacy-as-a-service solutions at an affordable price, or even free if they were subsidized by “Big Tech.”
It’s all very well to talk about consumers owning their own data, but the reality is that the vast majority of people are bewildered about what happens to their data and what it is used for.
They think they have denied permission and protected themselves. Still, then they may well have given it all away by agreeing to terms and conditions, or they may be being harvested by third parties without their knowledge.
This brings it back to Tim Berners-Lee. Thirty years on, he has created a new startup called Inrupt, which aims to create “pods” in Cyberspace where people store their personal data and control permissions. So, the inventor of the internet knows its issues and is doing something towards a solution.
Alongside providers engaged by individuals, perhaps we need the equivalent of an independent and unbiased “digital police force” which can root out disinformation and punish those who contravene and reward those who behave responsibly. Once again, the suggestion is that this should be funded by the tech companies themselves.
The lack of transparency from the tech companies and their ad-hoc attempts at self-regulation are not the answer.
Neither, I would suggest, is a massive anti-trust drive from Governments that would fragment the providers.
Thirty years on, the internet is a bedrock of modern human society in the developed world.
So much is at stake for the digital economy’s future that it needs to be fixed, and soon.
Suppose the internet descends any further into chaos. In that case, the ramifications could be extreme: from the viability of corporates to the survivability of public institutions to individuals’ ability to communicate with each other and access information for education and entertainment.
The dilemma is where the leadership is going to come from. The problem is complicated, but there are solutions. Is anyone out there prepared to take the lead?
In many cases calling the police is a last resort. Right now, I suggest we need to call the police to help resolve the internet emergency.
The only problem is that the internet currently has no police, just anarchy.
Image credit: iStockphoto/Bulat Silvia