Internet insiders are fully aware of a poorly kept secret: the Internet is deeply flawed and has been hijacked by a handful of large corporations. Today’s Internet is dominated by four or five huge companies with unprecedented power and capital. Data monetization is king and just about every website has become a surveillance machine, vacuuming up personal data and selling it to the highest bidder. And rather than remaining a single entity, the Internet has become a lawless, unregulated collection of ‘things’ unified by IP — the protocol used to connect devices as wide-ranging as cars and medical devices.
Almost five years ago, one insider went public about his well-documented concerns but his proposed solutions were rejected as unworkable. The Net’s promised anonymous discourse has devolved into abusive trolling and a haven for cybercriminals (and hostile state attacks). Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. An expert consensus appears to be emerging; the Internet is a 30-year-old mess.
Originally, the Internet was viewed as a level playing field where everyone’s voice would be heard, ungoverned by national laws and free from the need to make money. But that vision is long gone. Instead, Internet commerce has been built upon a foundation of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet that threatens to stifle innovation and independent thought. As Jaron Lanier warned in his 2013 treatise “Who Owns the Future”, the public has been seduced by the ” Siren Servers” (Google, Facebook, Amazon and a few other behemoths) that accumulate and control consumer data without paying people who provide all of this “free” information. He argues that the Web has become a Faustian model in which users of social media who have succumbed to a trap in which they willingly give their personal data and imaginative content in exchange for “free” services. All the while, the devil has emerged in the form of a highly centralized and untamable quasi-monopoly that continues to coalesce. (Broadcom’s attempted hostile takeover of Qualcomm is just one recent example) Lanier sought an information economy that rewards ordinary people for what they do and share on the web using a vaguely-defined honest accounting system. But his solution upset the apple cart built by the Internet behemoths and, five years later, remains unrealized due to cost, lack of social will and the sheer power of the current Net oligopoly.
More recently, Walter Isaacson, a noted writer and media executive, followed Lanier’s lead and argued that there’s a deep flaw within the Internet: its design. On Medium, Isaacson proposed that the packet-switched design of the Internet is the major problem. The anonymity that this design encouraged has proven to be its Achilles Heel, leading to poisoned civil discourse, enabled hacking, permitted cyberbullying, and an inherent lack of security. He echoed Lanier in calling for a centralized system of royalty payments (similar to ASCAP), and encoding data to allow for authenticating sources and uses of data. Alas, that too has not materialized.
Coinciding with the Internet’s 29th birthday (believe it or not, the Net has only been around for less than three decades), one of the Net’s original designers, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, sounded an ominous note of warning. Berners-Lee wrote, in part:
“The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last. What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data. We’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers. Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them — with each change they make affecting millions of people. The responsibility — and sometimes burden — of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.”
Indeed, Berners-Lee is responding to the fact that Google now accounts for about 87% of online searches worldwide. Facebook has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users – more than 20 times more than MySpace at its peak. Together, the two companies (including their subsidiaries Instagram and YouTube) rake in 60% of digital advertising spend worldwide. His concern is that concentrating power in the hands of gatekeepers that will result in a “control over which ideas and opinions are seen and shared”. Without “socially-minded” regulation, the promise of the Internet will not be realized. Worse yet, the innovations spawned by the Internet will be stifled.
The European Union has taken concrete, albeit overly modest, steps to call the Internet giants to account. It uses the threat of future regulation to encourage social media companies to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct aimed at speeding up takedowns of various types of illegal content, including terrorist propaganda. Though the Commission is also seeking to drive action against a much broader set of online content issues — such as hate speech, commercial scams and even copyrighted material. Both EU and some of its member states have advocated for increased automation of content moderation online. The U.S., unable to even create a Net Neutrality consensus, lags far behind other countries’ efforts to tame the Internet beast. But the steps taken so far circumvent the deep fixes pushed by Lanier, Isaacson, Berners-Lee and some of the Net’s other founders.