The internet is broken. Don’t take it from me – take it from its founding father. In March, 28 years after he switched on the first web server, Tim Berners-Lee posted an open letter on webfoundation.org: “The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today,” he lamented. “What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms…[making] it possible to weaponise the web at scale.” The Cambridge Analytica scandal has thrown that danger into relief. Its consequences are manifold: citizens living in filter bubbles; nefarious states interfering in elections; fake news gaining teeth; social divisions becoming entrenched. Online communication was once seen as a means of emancipation – today it looks increasingly like a tool of oppression.
This might not be the web we want, but it’s the web we deserve. Long ago, we struck a devil’s bargain with internet entrepreneurs: we get to access their platforms for free; they get to show us adverts in return. Initially, that might have seemed a win-win; years later, it has proven toxic. It has perpetuated a business model that incentivises undesirable corporate behaviour, chiefly the accumulation of personal data and development of new ways to exploit it. Unlike TV advertising, say, online ad targeting is now so stealthy and sophisticated that powerful dotcom companies have created digital environments that wield unprecedented influence over the way we perceive reality. And the problem runs deeper still. These organisations are motivated by profit. So when their tools are used for unsavoury purposes, they are not inclined to address the problem. Not only would they lose revenue – Facebook received $100,000 in ad spend from a Russian troll company during the 2016 US election – but trying to weed out fake-news merchants is in itself a costly pursuit.
Sure, policy makers are trying to intervene. On 25 May, the UK introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This enshrines privacy as a fundamental right and transforms how organisations handle personal data. It certainly has had consequences for the likes of Facebook, which now has to attain user consent to continue with certain practices. But GDPR is not a silver bullet. Analysts at TechCrunch argue that Facebook has been engineering opt-ins by nudging users to “speed through” the consent process via “a design that encourages rapidly hitting the ‘Agree’ button”.
It’s not that GDPR is bad law, it’s that companies incentivised to collect personal data and use it to change the way you think will always find a way. That’s why the answer has to be more fundamental: we have to jettison the expectation that on the internet things are free. So long as ad sales are the name of the game, capitalist enterprise will always push the envelope of what’s acceptable
“Information wants to be free” is a shibboleth that was baked into the politics of the web long ago. Internet philosopher king Jaron Lanier explains the intellectual history lucidly in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. When the internet was in its fledgling years, he recalls, the San Fran tech-utopian hippies who forged digital culture were firmly of the belief that software ought to be open. The argument was that if software was going to run the world then it was vital to democracy that its source code should be available to all. If software was paid for then companies would want to keep that code secret. Therefore “free” was all-important. However, there was a conflict. “Techies also practically worshipped hero entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs,” he writes. “Ultimately, only one method of reconciliation was identified: the advertising business model.” It remains dominant long after the open software movement has diminished.
That orthodoxy needs to be poleaxed. If we want a better internet, we need to ask the likes of Google and Facebook to stop collecting our data and running personalised ads. When they refuse (and they will), we – as users, as governments – should vote with our feet. A middle ground where platforms simply adopt more responsible data and advertising policies will not work. So long as ad sales are the name of the game, capitalist enterprise will always push the envelope of what’s acceptable – policing that would be an endless game of whack-a-mole and judging what is and isn’t permissible would prove an ethical quagmire.
In response, tech execs may ask users to pay a fee. This might take the form of a micropayment – a fraction of a penny, say, per Google search – or a monthly subscription charge. And we need to be prepared to cough up.
As more companies adopt a paid-for model, the user would become empowered. Since they, rather than the advertiser, would be the customer, web companies would be obliged to listen to their concerns and desires. Incentives would be realigned for the better. It’s not naive to think that this could even lead to an ecosystem in which companies compete to be the most scrupulous rather than the most exploitative – a virtuous multiplier effect.
As a society, we need to have this conversation sooner rather than later. Big tech is rapidly buying up the future, diversifying into new technologies and gaining a greater foothold in increasing areas of your life. In 2010, Sergey Brin said he wanted Google to be “the third half of your brain”; not that long ago, it was acquiring one company a week. So, as we move forward into this brave new world, keep the commonplace firmly in mind: when something is free, you are the product.