By Andrew Lovatt.
In the mid-90s I published an e-zine, remember those? It was called Ireland's Internet Future. It was very popular. Then well-known players in the emerging Irish internet gave their views on our future. Then that future caught up with us and swept us along to where we are today. And here we are again, with Cong16 putting on the binoculars to look and see, what's going on.
In the past 20 years there's been a complete take-over of what was the free world wide web. There's nothing much free today. All channels have been "monetized". Nothing of scale happens on the net today without massive financial backing and an integrated social media marketing plan. Today, it is no longer the “web", it is the "network". And it comes to you through any device, like the handy smartphone in our pockets.
I first met the inter-net in the early 1980s, when a friend Eric Raymond (who later became a leading guru of Perl) showed it to me in his apartment, on a 300baud dial-up. It was all text. He scooted from the Univ of Penn to Munich and Singapore, showing me how it was world wide. I was gobsmacked. Eric was a mad futurist and he had shown me how the future might look. Sometime later I got my first internet account and went online to discover Newsgroups that circled the globe and returned answers within a day, sometimes within hours. And then there was email! The potential for this technology to fundamentally change how people communicate was devastating.
In the late 1980s corporates and government had no interest. For them the internet was too unregulated and de-centralised to be of value. They couldn’t control the flow. That was what was unique about the original internet. It ran peer-to-peer through hubs, often free university servers, so there was no centre to it. All of that changed coming into the 1990s when MCI, Sprint and other telcos purchased the lease lines running to the universities and took over admin of the hubs. Of course the universities couldn’t continue funding a free internet. So the very structure of the internet became privately owned, and that fundamentally changed everything. The whole network, at least in EU and USA, was now owned by telcos. This gave government and corporates the control they needed.
Today the internet is regulated in the US and around the globe. Governments have censored the global traffic to suit their local cultures. Before you think I mean that in a positive way, I actually mean censorship. Try browsing the global web from Saudi Arabia or China, you won’t find it. On the other hand you have Google, at least we do in the West. Try using it to find something, and you’ll be given what Google “thinks” is best to give you. Certainly not the whole global network. That would be too wide, too much information. So you get a pre-filtered result. Of course Google argues this selection is based on metrics and customer desires, but really it is based on monetising the search traffic. Google makes millions every day from what we search, and how that value is translated for corporates.
The days of an even playing field, an idea which came with the birth of the internet and more pointedly with the world wide web, were gone the moment corporates and governments took over. The whole network became a battlefield for a new global battle - who controls the storyline? While we have rare examples of Twitter being used during the Arab Spring, the battle to control the story has been won by heavily financed corporate “publishers”, and to a large extent by corporate advertisers. Twitter is more commonly used to promote corporate sales and marketing.
By the way it presents itself, you would have thought Facebook was user-centric, that all the power of over a billion people would be the sway. But as we now know, Facebook have algorithms that can seriously effect the user experience. Within the past year Facebook has become the largest news channel on the planet. More news passes through Facebook and more users get their news through it than any other channel. That gives Facebook an incredible global power. So much so that editors of print media are now questioning how Facebook handles and prioritises the news, in effect cancelling any editorial decisions made by print media or other news channels. What Facebook says is the news is the news.
The reality of the network has gone beyond the web. We’re now at the any device stage. There are more mobile phones than PCs and more people connect via mobile than any other device. iPads and tablets come second. This has driven the publishers to develop new ways to engage users. The arrival of apps has driven dozens of new channels, like SnapChat and WhatsApp, that offer users some facility or function in exchange for their details.
The devil is in the details, the saying goes. And so it is with the 21st Century network. It’s all about the data. We’re at the stage where AI (artificial intelligence) is gaining ground and it needs more and more data to work. As it is, data is king. It tells the publishers who reacted to what and what that is worth to them. That is their major concern, making profit. It is getting harder to see non-monetised channels at all. That amateur part of the web is now wrongly called the Dark Web. That’s a rubbish name that seeks to prejudice “good citizens” against roaming the network outside of official channels. It is all part of controlling the story - there are dangerous things out there on the Dark Web, so stick to your trusted channels.
It’s not hard to see the rationale behind China’s need to control the story. There’s no way China would allow a complete and uncensored global network to operate in its borders. Given the fact that this technology was born in the USA, there are many countries that don’t want “American propaganda” channelled into their countries uncensored or unfiltered. That brings governments into position to “customise” the network feed to suit their political and cultural aims.
The early days of the internet introduced the world to a very particular worldview - liberal, American and open. These forces are still around to some extent, for example the Electronic Frontier Foundation, founded twenty years ago to do battle for citizen rights on the network. It still battles today. But the majority of the network is solidly owned and controlled by various corporates and countries. In fact, we are in the stage of cyber warfare, where all competing powers are vying to control the message.
How does all this contrast with the early, heady, idealistic days of the internet? That idealism is still around. When it isn’t co-opted by corporates, the double-speak of Google, Facebook et al, it exists as a protest against the mainstream. In the early 90s we recognised there was a battle to keep the internet un-controlled and free, a battle between individual rights and the corporate and government need to hold power. Individual rights lost that battle. Welcome to the safe, sanctioned network.
Do we make our own futures on the internet? Only in the smallest of ways. The big players have all the power now and what they want from it, from us, is a growing shopping list of more data and more control.
Back when I was editing Ireland’s Internet Future I predicted that the world wide web as we knew it was going to pass, that there would be a new web that was sanctioned and sanitised and that the original web would become known as something wild and dangerous. What I didn’t foresee was the breakdown of the web into a much larger and comprehensive “network”, available on any device. As you sit reading this, the smartphone in your pocket is broadcasting your location and activity, “all the better to serve you” so it is said. The network is already being used to track “subversives” and terrorists. It’s also being used to track anyone and anything. To what end? Control of course.
Edward Snowden’s revelations on the invasion of privacy have alerted the world to the nature of the network. What citizen engagement could possibly have a say about such powerful global forces? Back in the late 80s there was a lot of idealism about the internet; how it could span the world and help bring democracy into fruition. That was naive of course. Wherever there is value, control will follow. Personally, I don’t see how individuals can ever have equal power to the “owners” of the network. Why was I shocked that the powerful political and economic forces took control? I should have seen it coming.
Where to next? Body chips, “to better serve you”. It will seem like “common sense” when it is offered. Certainly we are seeing the refinement of data and what is has to offer corporates and governments, and the looming and quite threatening arrival of AI. It has already become so complex a network that the average citizen cannot know how all of it works. The internet was once a level playing field and an open source, offering transparency and equality to all. We’re a long way from that today. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
The connected world has changed its meaning. First used as a positive, where everyone has equal access and opportunity, it is now shorthand for surveillance and monitoring of everyone’s movements and all network activities, city by city and globally. What if you don’t want to be part of this? It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Everything we do is connected to the network. You would have to go to extra-ordinary efforts to “get off the grid”. The fact is, very few people are willing to make the effort. Our only opportunity is to pay attention to the politics of the network and begin to fight back and demand individual privacy and individual rights. Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to be about?