What is the big impediment to the internet moving forward? It’s not the need, as is often pointed out, for a “trust-less” solution to the dominant firms of the internet, Meta and Google and TikTok, as is often claimed by proponents of the Web3 movement.
Nor is it a company making money off of people with a little blue check mark, separating those who pay and those who don’t.
No, the great impediment to the internet is that people have no autonomy in the increasing number of ways that they are herded like cattle on social media and even in crypto projects such as NFTs. Whether it’s a monopoly of giant firms such as what’s now Elon Musk’s Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, or an oligarchy of a small handful of crypto pioneers, neither will give people freedom.
On social media such as Facebook, Snap, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Telegram, and, yes, Twitter, users have no autonomy. They have no freedom to make choices. Even those with a magical blue check mark have nothing but a menu to pick from a few functions, defined entirely by the platform owner, such as post/tweet, like, retweet, follow, unfollow. Users may have a couple settings, if they’re lucky, for who sees them — the entire world, or just “friends.”
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The blockchain and crypto crowd view trust as the problem, specifically trust placed in centralizing entities such as Meta. If trust wasn’t monopolized by Meta, Twitter, Google, Apple, etc., the thinking goes, there would be freedom. And there have been numerous blockchain projects trying to build “Web3” for that purpose.
But trust or trust-less, in either case, humans are vulnerable to manipulation. The real problem is that in all the ways humans want to interact, there has been no mechanism of autonomy. There has only been a mechanism of control by platforms. Autonomy is what’s missing, not trust.
If it’s possible to coin a term without any actual code to show for it, the “next internet,” if you will, needs to be about individual humans’ freedom of action, freedom from tyranny. The next internet, what you could call “Web4,” if that appeals, is an open space not yet built, and not yet conceived.
What would trust look like? First and foremost, your data would be your own. The predatory use of data is expertly documented in numerous landmark works such as Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” It’s not enough to criticize the use of data by Meta and others. There needs to be a positive vision for how individuals can control their data.
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There is the beginning of such as proposal in the White House’s Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, released in September by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The document contains an entire section on data privacy.
Such discussions do not go far enough. Their main thrust is to discourage bad behavior by platform owners, without articulating a positive vision for a personal right to data. What is needed is to continue the unfinished work of building the internet, including what would be a “personal protocol,” a tool by which people would be in control from the get-go.
In fact, one of the original creators of the Internet, Dr. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA, has told ZDNET about how new protocols for the internet could be instituted to make every individual the master of their data.
The important aspect of Kleinrock’s description is that it is not about what Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg will give people, such as little blue check marks. It is about a form of inalienable rights that people already posses that must be respected. That’s the right way to start.
That shift in vantage point, to start from inalienable rights, is essential, and it’s the thing most futurists fail to take into account.
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Even the most insightful pundits about internet technology usually begin their reflections by asking how businesses can make more money on the internet, rather than asking how people can be free.
Case in point, in an interview earlier this year, New York Review of Books Editor Edgar Llivisupa asked Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, about the prospect of breaking up Facebook and other big tech. Said Zuckerman, the better alternative is to create smaller alternatives to Big Tech:
What would be a more profound shift is investing in alternative, smaller, community-controlled models of Internet communities. That could be done in addition to trying to break up these large companies or as an alternative pathway. For me, thinking about what social media could do if it were structured to be small and community-governed is far more radical than breaking up existing companies.
The biggest problem with well-meaning efforts such as Zuckerman’s is that they often start not from asking about human freedom but from trying to figure out how to make business interests less predatory.
As Zuckerman explained in an insightful article in The Atlantic about his early experience with internet startup Tripod, in the 1990s, most businesses tend to exploit people’s personal data because that is a business model that is easy to sell to venture capital investors.
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It’s called “investor storytime,” wrote Zuckerman. “The key part of investor storytime is persuading investors that your ads will be worth more than everyone else’s ads. That’s because most online ads aren’t worth very much. […] So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.”
Investor storytime is the crux of the internet’s problem: the constant focus on what business needs, not what people need. Elon Musk’s intention of trying to fix Twitter’s business model by charging for little blue check marks is yet another in that long line of attempts to turn users into profit.
As long as the conversation focuses on how businesses should conduct business, it ignores the more pressing question of human freedom.
Business practices should be subject to human freedom, not the other way around.
From Zuckerman’s point of view, business ventures always start with good intentions. “What I wanted to do was to build a tool that allowed everyone to have the opportunity to express themselves and be heard from anywhere from a few friends to the entire globe,” he writes.
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That goal is, indeed, possible, without people being subject to surveillance, provided society stops trying to figure out business models and goes back to building the internet.
Now is a moment not for a better version of Twitter, or a more benign other venue that might replace it. Now is an urgent time for the best technology minds in the world to continue the unfinished business of the internet, namely, building a personal protocol, a tool that would be owned by no one but that would put everyone on the internet in control of their data. It’s a moon shot that is worth the effort.