As the US slowly waves goodbye to net neutrality and Europe ushers in a new privacy age, now is the perfect time to check in on the health of half of the world’s population’s everyday companion: the internet. It was once Anakin Skywalker, meant to bring balance to the Force and be the great equaliser, a voice for the voiceless, the harbinger of democracy and the disseminator of ideas. It delivered on many of these promises, but is now seemingly having a period of teenage rebellion (or a Darth Vader moment): Facebook is spying on everyone, democracy has lost its shine, and Jeff Bezos keeps trying to get inside people’s houses. Is this the Internet’s future? Or could it get even worse?
Away From Keyboard
An eloquent man once said “We don’t use the expression IRL […]. We say AFK — Away From Keyboard. We think that the internet is for real.” He is right: the changes coming to the internet will have real impacts, both digital and analogue. “Fake news” and conspiracy theories are mere symptoms of a wider disease that has spread because many institutions did not take the internet seriously. Because of these oversights, it is being manipulated for greed, profit and violent ends. We can already see the effect everywhere, from the individual level (How one woman’s digital life was weaponized against her) to the societal level (Homo Sapiens Versus The Internet; This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit).
Many companies which were once internet-only sensations now have a tremendous impact on people’s AFK lives, in one way or another. But at what price?
In some countries, US tech giants have managed to make their products indistinguishable from the internet. And it could get worse. There could soon not be an internet on which one can watch shows on Netflix then jump over to Gmail — one would watch Facebook TV and send Facebook Messages, and all with the government’s blessing, as it would make control and surveillance easier. Soufar-fetched? Potentially, but everyone already posts photos on Instagram, communicate via Whatsapp and Messanger and get news from Facebook’s feed, all of which are Facebook-owned, whose modus operendi is to kill or buy any app that gets close to the podium of most-downloaded apps worldwide. The same applies to Google and the nation’s work lives (calendar, Gmail, docs…). This is not science fiction, this is the reality the world is hurtling towards now: a closed system where all information gathered can be endlessly gamed to further expand a brand’s grip on everyday life.
This is not the way the Internet was built, nor the future those who built it aspired to. At its very core, the internet is designed to avoid the central points of control that now seek to command it (Hint: this is why net neutrality is so important). This technical prowess arose from a well thought-out, non-technical, philosophy: the creators of the internet understood that networks gain new powers through the connection of new devices and services that plug into the network (“end nodes”), rather than through the computers that manage the traffic on the network alone. This is the idea that gave birth to the idea of the modern “Network Effects” (Think Uber or AirBnB, but also blockchain and bitcoin). This is known as the “end-to-end” principle of network design, and its elegant simplicity is the reason why the internet led to so many more innovations than the centralised networks that came before, such as the telegram. The democratisation of access to knowledge is mankind’s greatest invention, and ought to be one of the main talking point of attack for any antitrust lawyers going after Facebook, Amazon or Google, much like they did for Microsoft in the 90s.
Back in the day, parents taught children not to get in anyone’s cars, and not to meet strangers from the internet. As adults, we now literally summon strangers from the internet to get in their car and tell them where we live. And the general population is willing to tell a lot more to Google and Facebook than Uber: laptops and smartphones have become double agents, providing everything to (nearly) everyone with something to sell, from one’s location to one’s lover’s address (yes, those two are linked), and everything in between. What is looked at, where people go and even what they say can be used to paint a spot-on portrait used to make a larger sale.
Silicon Valley has planted the idea that the price of using the internet is letting them data-mine their customers’ lives. They are wrong.
Of course, none of the above necessarily means that techies are evil-masterminding the end of the world. They’re just trying to run a business and do their job of providing a good life for their employees and shareholders. It is the general public that is failing. Failing to elect officials who enact their constituents’ desire to bring balance to the ever-more-icy privacy slopes of the internet.
A few months ago, Netflix tweeted out, “To the 53 people who watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”. That’s pretty hilarious, and Netflix argued that there was no shady business going on. Nevertheless, this ranks somewhere above “not at all,” but waaaay below “Google ad for something I’ve only referenced in gmail” on the “creepy ad” scale. Netflix’s ploy is clearly a blatant copy of fellow streaming success Spotify’s long-running billboard and print ad campaign that uses consumer usage stats as punchlines. While these projects are undoubtedly funny, they are also a reminder of how much data these companies have on us. The more big-brother-averse customers are struggling with this new normal, which one thinks has as much to do with the data as it does with basic intimacy: maybe some people do not want the world to know they added 28 Ed Sheeran songs to their‘I Love Gingers’ playlist.
All of the above does not even broach the matter of hacks and all that data falling into the wrong hands. And it has. And it will continue to, because most of the population is lazy and sloppy with their data.
Most people love the internet, and ought to believe in its resilience. It takes time to adapt, and even Vader had a redemptive moment. There are 3 ways to help reverse the current trends:
Protect customer data rights: How did corporations get the rights to everyone’s data? This question means that this solution is the hardest one to achieve out of the three, as giving away information grants access to free services such as Google and Facebook. But there has to be a line somewhere, and asking companies to pay to use data may be an interesting place to start. We can keep track of where the information came from and pay people when information that exists because they exist turns out to be valuable, no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not. The price be determined by the markets, though a few bad players could once again skew the curve towards free. Asking companies to pay their fair share could not only help with privacy issues, but also provide something akin to a basic income, as everyone has information to share. This would force companies to rethink much of their business plans, but wouldn’t hit the bottom line as much as one would think.
Break up the big monopolies: that movement is likely to come from a 2018 senator-to-be eyeing up the presidency. Regulators who have neither the backbone nor the capacity to actually go after tech companies are being elected, but that will change when public opinion drastically shifts. For now, Trump lacks the credibility, and his team the collective IQ, to muster much of a scuffle, but the next administration going after the tech giants would be Brazil vs Germany 2014 redux: a lot of talk and showmanship followed by a methodical and surgical beating.
Inflict the mother of all fines on companies that do not play by the rules: this one will likely come from Europe, which is seeing all the negatives from the rise of the Big Four without any of the positives. Currently, institutions deal with companies that lie and cheat by inflicting fines that represent only a single-digit percentage of their balance sheet. That’s the equivalent of issuing 25-cent parking tickets on a meter that costs 100 dollars an hour. Digital companies have destroyed the economy’s equilibrium, and a price must be paid to restore the balance. This is where GDPR comes in, whether the Americans agree or not.
The internet does not have to be a corporate playground. That is just the path that people have chosen to walk down so far.
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