How to fix the internet, according to its pioneers

How to fix the internet, according to its pioneers
Image: Should This Exist?
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For more on how the web went wrong, check out the tenth episode of our Should This Exist? podcast, which debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.

The internet is only 30 years old and is supposedly already “broken.” What began as a happy experiment in information exchange, invented by scientist Time Berners-Lee to facilitate knowledge transfers between the learned, has become a virtual world full of all that physical existence has to offer, plus some, including fraud, crime, data exploitation, outrage, and hate.

Is the web so bad we need to scrap it?

That would probably be impossible at this point and a quintessential case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We live in a society so accustomed to the disposable that it’s tempting to say yes, but there used to be a concept called “repair” and it may be time to revive it now.

The internet pioneers who were once optimistic about its possibilities are now nostalgic for the good old days when friendly weirdos met online for healthy debate and exchange. They say there are ways to manage the web, things we can do, both individually and societally, to start to shape the experiment more deliberately now that we know what happens when a project as vast and cooperative as this is left to develop without much in the way of foresight, coordination, and regulation.

Declare digital independence 

Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia recently called for a social media strike as part of his burgeoning movement to liberate internet users from their ties to big companies, like Facebook, that hold their content captive. “Humanity has been contemptuously used by vast digital empires. Thus it is now necessary to replace these empires with decentralized networks of independent individuals, as in the first decades of the Internet,” he wrote on his blog.

Sanger believes the best solution to the whole range of problems online—privacy breaches, data exploitation, threats to democracy, hate speech, content ownership, and more—lies in the hands of individuals, working collectively, rather than governments whose representatives don’t always understand the technical aspects of the web. He argues that by creating decentralized social networks, we can liberate ourselves from corporate control and still enjoy the benefits of interaction online. He urges us to “declare that we legally own our own data” and possess “both legal and moral rights to control” it.

Posts that appear on social networks should be able to be served, like email and blogs, from many independent services rather than from central or corporate-owned platforms, Sanger says. If you didn’t have to be on Facebook to post content that shows up on the platform, the company couldn’t harvest the same data, risk exposing your private information, exploit your networks, or influence your thinking by algorithmically serving up whatever it deems useful for its own business purposes. Yet, you could still engage with anyone on any platform and reach people across networks.

While it’s notable that Sanger had to use social networks to promote the strike against them, his points are still valid and the fact that he sees a clear path to a new approach to social media, through the creation of communication standards that allow individual independence, offers promise.

Delete social media

Technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer and early internet evangelist, contends in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now that we need to quit platforms that are designed to make us addicted to them. He calls these platforms (Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook) BUMMERs, which stands for Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent. “We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know,” Lanier writes in his book. “We’re all lab animals now.”

Lanier, like Sanger, believes there’s a better way to engage online that won’t make us feel bad and won’t make us vulnerable to corporations, and he’s working on an alternate platform model. But he also argues that you can just quit Twitter cold turkey and will still survive. “I think there might be a degree to which people are afraid that if they did anything different, their life would be completely destroyed, but they may not be correct. It might actually be fine,” he told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year.

Break up big tech monopolies

Big problems need big solutions, which is why many argue for government regulation of the web and its biggest companies. In May, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times about why “it’s time to break up Facebook.”

Hughes argues that we already have tools to ensure that companies like the one he helped start are acting responsibly, namely anti-trust laws. “We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American. It is time to break up Facebook,” Hughes wrote.

Too much market concentration has allowed Facebook to fail users even as it grows ever more successful. Even when you “delete Facebook,” you may continue to use its other platforms, like Instagram and WhatsApp. Your personal data, which Facebook has failed to safeguard, ends up in the same arguably irresponsible hands. The solution, according to Hughes and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, is to use existing laws to ensure power isn’t consolidated as it has been.

Regulate activity

The European Union is already trying to fix the web, or one aspect of it, by passing a law that requires major platforms like Google to do a better job of monitoring content for intellectual property violations. Currently, content is uploaded to the web and only gets reviewed for potential theft if someone makes a complaint, claiming to be the true rights holder. Under the new rules, content will be monitored algorithmically and won’t be posted if it seems to offend IP law.

There are problems with this approach, most notably the fact that machines can’t, at this point, make nuanced distinctions between fair use for news and parody, as compared to prohibited content “borrowing.” But arguably, the gargantuan effort to at least try to turn the online Wild West into a more orderly society is a positive sign that change is possible.

Don’t despair

The hand-wringing over the internet’s evolution is necessary and useful. Collectively and individually, we do need to think about how we engage with our tools. We should be asking how to improve them and, while we mull the solutions, we should be making moves to defend against misuse.

What we should not do, however, is lose sight of the big picture. For all the negatives, the web has brought us many exciting developments and when we manage ourselves online, just like in the physical world, we create constructive spaces. The web reflects humanity back at us—it’s not separate from us—just a manifestation of what is good, bad, and ugly in humans.

Berners-Lee, creator of the web, has a useful perspective. He sees the internet as an evolving tool still in a process of maturation.”When you grow up, you have to accept responsibility,” he told Quartz previously. “But we think that as everybody goes through the coming of age, it’ll be worth the effort to make sure the web is a nice and constructive place, because it’ll be so wonderful to be in.”

For more on how the web went wrong, check out the tenth episode of our Should This Exist? podcast, which debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.