Ideas

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MOSES holding the 10 commandments
AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer
Is Big Tech following the 10 commandments?
LET MY PEOPLE GO

The journey to a new internet: A reading from the Book of Exodus

Phil Chen
By Phil Chen

Decentralized chief officer, HTC

Much like the Israelites under the tyranny of Pharaoh, the users of the internet are being oppressed—slaves to large masters.

The lasting symbol of Egypt’s empire is the pyramids, an empire of stone. The Israelites slaved night and day to build these monuments that represented power, influence, and wealth.

Likewise, internet users are being worked to generate and build modern treasure houses for their overlords, using their own data as bricks. Within the walls of these modern pyramids is all of our personal data, which empowers and wealthifies the modern-day Pharaohs: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google (known with the addition of Netflix as “the FAANGs”), coupled with their Asian counterparts Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

There is little doubt that many endeavors of the 30-year-old technology have been fruitful and brought an abundance of innovations, just as the pyramids have preserved Egyptian heritage and are still promoting trade and tourism 4,500 years later. The internet has made countless peoples’ lives better and, in many cases, the world a better place to live. But the social contract has been broken.

The internet has now become the centralized means of an ancient empire that keeps track of everyone, with more predictive power and surveillance capabilities at their disposal than ever before. The Eye of Providence that tops the pyramid on the US dollar bill now seems like a shuddering prophecy and fulfillment of the surveillance economy.

The father of the world wide web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for a new architecture that places security, privacy, and ownership of data back where it belongs: with the people. We are currently in a crisis of giving away our data and digital identity for cheap endorphins, and surrendering all of our attention and power to the Big Data monolithic cloud companies, which mine that data for artificial intelligent agents and advertising revenue. In some cases, our data has been used by bad actors to steal money or confidential information, but in the worst cases, it has gone as far as impacting and influencing democratic processes.

This is an abuse of digital power. Artificial intelligence could erase many advantages of democracy and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It has so far concentrated power among a small elite and will continue to do so if we don’t stop it commoditizing humanity. Technology favors tyranny.

US senator Elizabeth Warren and her peers are attempting to take a top-down approach to removing the power and wealth of the large tech companies perpetrating these ills. But while politicians may see splitting up the Big Tech giants as the parting of the Red Sea, this can only happen when people are brought to the crossing and are empowered to escape their slavery.

We are at the internet’s burning-bush moment.

There is a better way than God-given decrees handed down from above: a bottom-up approach that gives control back to the people.

For the free market to live up to its full promise and potential, we need to decentralize data, wealth, and power. One of the most important ways of decentralizing data and its mining of human creativity is to empower everyone to own their own personal data.

Every other economic revolution in history was defined by the ownership of property: For the agricultural revolution it was physical property, and for the industrial revolution it was intellectual property. What about our digital revolution? We need to give people control and ownership over their digital data and identity.

It is the equivalent of showing users a way to the other side, away from tyranny and slavery, toward the promised land. An exodus, a movement away from bondage to a free land. A decentralized internet.

This bottom-up approach can end the Big-Data business models of our new Pharaohs without the need for any government intervention, which may prove futile in its attempt to defang the FAANGs. Much like those Egyptian leaders, they are obstinate, enjoy their current status, and will go to great lengths to keep the status quo; simply asking them to “let my people go” did not work for Moses, and it won’t work for senator Warren, either. An exodus of the people will be what forces companies to adapt, as it always has been.

A decentralized internet is the promised land. As users are able to protect and secure their own data, they would also able to monetize it if they were happy to do so. There is a future in providing the information from the sensors on your smartphone to insurance companies to lower your premium, and even get customized menus in a drive-thru. Decentralization will not stifle innovation or limit the use of data—it’ll merely shift power back to whom that data rightly belongs.

We are at the internet’s burning-bush moment. We have been given a generational opportunity to utilize a new technology for good, and the ability to lead people away from being controlled to being in control.

The promise of the internet was a world without borders, but corporate sovereigns have built multiple walls that now divide humanity. As in the Book of Exodus, we need to lead users to the promised land.