What is the main obstacle to the advancement of the Internet? It is not the need, as is often pointed out, for a “trustless” solution to the dominant internet companies, Meta and Google and TikTok, as proponents of the Web3 Movement.
Nor is it a company that makes money off of people. little blue tickseparating those who pay and those who don’t.
No, the big obstacle to the internet is that people have no autonomy in the growing number of ways they are herded like cattle on social media and even in crypto projects such as NFTs. Whether it was a giant corporate monopoly like what is now Elon Musk’s Twitter and Meta by Mark Zuckerbergor an oligarchy of a small handful of crypto pioneers, neither will set people free.
On social networks such as Facebook, Snap, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Telegram and, yes, Twitter, users have no autonomy. They have no freedom of choice. Even those with a magic blue tick have nothing but a menu to choose from some functions, fully defined by the platform owner, such as post/tweet, like, retweet, follow, unfollow. Users can have a few settings, if they are lucky, for who sees them – the whole world, or just “friends”.
The blockchain and crypto crowd see trust as the problem, especially the trust placed in centralizing entities such as Meta. If trust were not monopolized by Meta, Twitter, Google, Apple, etc., it is believed, there would be freedom. And there was many blockchain projects trying to build “Web3” for this purpose.
But trust or no trust, either way, humans are vulnerable to manipulation. The real problem is that in all the ways humans want to interact, there hasn’t been a mechanism for autonomy. There was only a control mechanism by the platforms. It is autonomy that is lacking, not trust.
If it is possible to invent a term without any real code to show it, the “next Internet”, if you will, must be about the freedom of action of individuals, the freedom from oppression. The next Internet, what you might call “Web4”, if you’re interested, is an open space not yet built, and not yet designed.
What would trust look like? Above all, your data would be yours. The predatory use of data is expertly documented in many seminal works such as “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism“It’s not enough to criticize use of data by Meta and others. There needs to be a positive view of how individuals can control their data.
There is the beginning of such a proposal in the White House Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, published 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 objective is to discourage bad behavior by platform owners, without articulating a positive vision of 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 start.
In fact, one of the original creators of the Internet, Dr. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA, told ZDNET how new protocols for the Internet could be instituted to make each individual the master of their data.
The important thing about Kleinrock’s description is that it’s not about what Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg will give people, like little blue ticks. It is a form of inalienable rights that people already have and that must be respected. It’s the right way to start.
This change of point of view, starting with inalienable rights, is essential, and it is what most futurists do not take into account.
Even the most perceptive experts on Internet technology usually begin their thoughts by asking how businesses can make more money on the Internet, rather than asking how people can be free.
Concrete example, in an interview earlier this year, Edgar Llivisupa, editor of the New York Review of Books, interviewed Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, about the prospect of dismantling Facebook and other major technologies. According to Zuckerman, the best alternative is to create smaller alternatives to Big Tech:
What would be a deeper change would be to invest in alternative, smaller, community-controlled Internet community models. This could be done in addition to trying to dismantle these big companies or as an alternative route. To me, thinking about what social media could do if it were structured to be small and community-governed is far more radical than dismantling existing businesses.
The biggest problem with well-meaning efforts like Zuckerman’s is that they often start not by asking questions about human freedom, but by trying to figure out how to make corporate interests less predatory.
As Zuckerman explained in a insightful article in Atlantic about his first experience with internet startup Tripod, in the 1990s most companies tend to mine people’s personal data because it’s an easy business model to sell to venture capitalists.
It’s called “investor story time,” Zuckerman wrote. “The key to investor story time is to persuade investors that your ads will be worth more than everyone else’s ads. That’s because most online ads aren’t worth much. . […] So we’re building companies that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, pervasive and targeted, and that we’ll collect more data about our users and their behavior.”
Investor story time gets to the heart of the Internet’s problem: the constant focus on business needs, not user needs. Elon Musk’s intention to try to fix Twitter’s business model charging little blue ticks is yet another in a long line of attempts to turn users into profit.
As long as the conversation focuses on how corporations should conduct business, it ignores the more pressing issue of human freedom.
Business practices should be subject to human freedom, not the other way around.
From Zuckerman’s perspective, business ventures always start with good intentions. “What I wanted to do was create a tool that would allow everyone to have the opportunity to express themselves and be heard from anywhere, from a few friends to the whole world,” he writes.
This goal is indeed possible, without people being subject to surveillance, provided society stops trying to come up with business models and gets back to building the internet.
Now is not the time for a better version of Twitter, or some other, more benign place to replace it. There is now an urgent need for the best technological minds in the world to continue the unfinished work of the Internet, namely the construction of a personal protocol, a tool which would not belong to anyone but which would allow everyone on the Internet to control their data. . It’s a moonshot that’s worth it.