I see a society that is crumbling. The rampant technology is simultaneously capsizing industries that were previously the bread and butter of economic growth. The working man and woman have felt its effects as wages stagnate and employment opportunities remain fewer amidst a progressively automated economy. Increasing wage inequality and financial vulnerability have given rise to populism, and the domino effects are spreading. People are angry. They demand fairness and are threatened by policies and outsiders that may endanger their livelihoods. This has caused a greater cultural and racial divide within and between nations. Technology has enabled this anger to spread, influence and manipulate at a much greater speed than ever before resulting in increasing polarization and a sweeping anxiety epidemic. Globally, we are much more connected – this, to our detriment. We’ve witnessed both government and business leverage technology to spread disinformation for their gains. While regulators struggle to keep pace with these harms, the tech giants continue, unabated, to wield their influence and power to establish footprints that make both consumers and business increasingly dependent on their platforms and technology stacks. We cannot escape them, nor do we want to. Therein lays the concern…
This recent article, “The World is Choking on Data Pollution” offered a profound distillation of what we are witnessing today:
Progress has not been without a price. Like the factories of 200 years ago, digital advances have given rise to a pollution that is reducing the quality of our lives and the strength of our democracy… We are now face-to-face with a system embedded in every structure of our lives and institutions, shaping our society in ways that deeply impact our basic values.
Tim Berners Lee’s Intent for the World Wide Web has Run Off-Course:
Tim Berners Lee had this Pollyannaish view once upon a time that went like this: What if we could develop a web that was free to use for everyone and that would fuel creativity, connection and knowledge across the globe? He believed the internet to be a basic human right,
…That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.
Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners Lee led the development of the World Wide Web and unleashed the “language HTML (hypertext markup language) to create the webpages HTTP (used to create web pages), HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), and URLs (Universal Resource Locators).”
The now ubiquitous WWW set a movement which has scaled tremendously, reinventing the way we do business, access and consume information, create connections and perpetuate an unrelenting mindset of innovation and optimism.
What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we witness a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.
What have been most distressing are the effects of cyberbullying on our children. In 2016, The National Crime Prevention reported 43% of teens were subjects of cyberbullying, an increase of 11% from a decade prior. Some other numbing statistics:
- “2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting revealed the number of children admitted to hospitals for attempted suicide or expressing suicidal thoughts doubled between 2008 and 2015”
- “Javelin Research finds that children who are bullied are 9 times more likely to be the victims of identity fraud as well.”
- “Data from numerous studies also indicate that social media is now the favored medium for cyberbullies”
Big Tech: Too Big to Fail?
As the web evolved throughout the 90s we witnessed the emergence of hefty players like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and later Facebook and Amazon. As Chris Dixon asserted:
During the second era of the internet, from the mid 2000s to the present, for-profit tech companies — most notably Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) — built software and services that rapidly outpaced the capabilities of open protocols. The explosive growth of smartphones accelerated this trend as mobile apps became the majority of internet use. Eventually users migrated from open services to these more sophisticated, centralized services. Even when users still accessed open protocols like the web, they would typically do so mediated by GAFA software and services.
Today, we appropriately apply a few acronyms to these giants: G-MAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple), or FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and now BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). These players have created a progressively centralized internet that has limited competition and has stifled the growth of startups, which are more vulnerable to these tech giants. My discussion with a social network founder (who asked to remain nameless) spoke of one of the large platforms which continuously copied newly released features from their site, and they did so transparently because “they could.” He also witnessed a stall of user engagement and eventual churn. He was unable to compete effectively without the necessary resources and eventually relented, changing his business model and withdrawing to the cryptocurrency community to start anew.
Consider this: These eight players Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba are larger than the “market cap of every listed company in the Eurozone in Emerging Markets and in Japan.” G-MAFIA (excluding IBM) combined posted in 2018 average returns of 45% compared with 19% return among S&P500. Now add the high degree of consolidation of the tech industry. Together FAANG has acquired 398 companies since 2007. The type of acquisitions has heightened interest from regulators and economists towards anti-trust regulation. Add to this list the highest-ever acquisition in history with IBM’s purchase of Red Hat at a reported $34 billion.
Big tech valuations continue to rise despite the sins illuminated by their technologies. There is this dichotomy that pits what’s good for consumers against what’s good for shareholders. We’ve derived some great experiences from these platforms, but we’ve also seen examples of invisible harms. However unintended, they surface as a result of the business mandate to prioritize user growth and engagement. These performance indicators are what drive employee performance and company objectives. When we think about the impact of big tech, their cloud environments and web hosting servers ensure our emails, our social presence, and our websites are available to everyone on the web. In essence, they control how the internet is run.
Amy Webb, Author of “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and their Thinking Machines could Warp Humanity” refers not only to G-MAFIA but also BAT (the consortium that has led the charge in the highly controversial Social Credit system to create a trust value among its Chinese citizens). She writes:
We stop assuming that the G-MAFIA (Google, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon) can serve its DC and Wall Street masters equally and that the free markets and our entrepreneurial spirit will produce the best possible outcomes for AI and humanity
These Nine will shape the future of the internet, no doubt. Webb envisions several scenarios where China’s encroaching influence will enable an AGI to control the world much more pervasively than the Social Credit System, and where “democracy will end” in the United States. This is not implausible as we are already seeing signs of BAT’s increased funding across gaming, social media, fintech sectors, outpacing the US in investment.
Webb also foresees a future of stifling individual privacy where our personal information is locked in the operating systems of these tech giants, now functioning oligopolies, fueling a “digital caste system,” mimicking a familiar authoritarian system in China.
This future that Webb forecasts is plausible. Today, beyond Cambridge Analytica and government’s alleged use of Facebook to manipulate voters and seed chaos, the damages, however divergent, are more pervasive and are more connected to one another than we realize. We have seen Amazon’s facial recognition technology used in law enforcement, which has been deemed ineffective and wrought of racial bias. In the same vein, Buzzfeed reported the use of facial recognition being used in retail systems without the regard for user consent. We believed in Facebook’s initiative to safeguard our security through two-factor authentication, while they used our mobile numbers to target our behavior and weaken our privacy in the process. Both Facebook and Amazon have been known to have experimented with our data to manipulate our emotions. When Tiktok was fined $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data, it was only following the lead of its predecessors. The biggest data breaches of all time have involved some of the largest tech companies like FB, Yahoo! and Uber as well as established corporations like Marriott and Equifax. The downstream effects are yet to be realized as this data is bought and sold on the dark web to the highest bidders. When 23andMe created the Personal Genome Service as an offer to connect people to their roots, it was, instead, exposed as “front for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public.”
What is emerging are the hidden intentions behind the algorithms and technology that make it more difficult to trust our peers, our institutions and our government. While employees were up in arms because of Google’s “Dragonfly” censored search engine with China and its Project Maven’s drone surveillance program with DARPA, there exists very few mechanisms to stop these initiatives from taking flight without proper oversight. The tech community argues they are different than Big Pharma or Banking. Regulating them would strangle the internet.
Technology precedes regulation. This new world has created scenarios that are unaddressable under current laws. What the prevailing legal threat unleashed through the GDPR, there are aspects of it that some argue that may indeed stifle innovation. However, it’s a start. In the meantime, we need to progress so systems and governance are in sync, and tech giants are held in check. This is not an easy task. Who is responsible for the consequences of AI decisions? What mechanisms should be in place to ensure that the industry does not act in ways that go against the public interest? How can practitioners determine whether a system is appropriate for the task and whether it remains appropriate over time? These were the very questions we attempted to answer at the UK/Canada Symposium on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. There are no clear answers today.
Back to Basics: Can we re-decentralize an increasingly centralized internet?
Here’s a thought! How do we move our increasingly digital world into a place where we all feel safe; where we control our data; where our needs and desires are met without depending on any one or two institutions to give us that value? The decentralized web is a mindset and a belief in an alternative structure that can address some of the afflictions that have risen from data pollution. This fringe notion is slowly making its way back to mainstream:
A Web designed to resist attempts to centralize its architecture, services, or protocols [so] that no individual, state, or corporation can substantially control its use.
Is it possible to reverse the deterioration we are experiencing today? I spoke with individuals who are working actively within the values of the decentralized web and are building towards this panacea. Andrew Hill and Carson Farmer developed Textile.IO, a digital wallet for photos that are entirely controlled and owned by the user. Textile.io didn’t start out as a decentralized project. As Andrew recalls:
We started this project asking: what was the future of personal data going to look in the future of personal data look like in technology. We didn’t like the answer at all. It seemed like the ubiquity of data with the increasing of computing power and increasing complexity of algorithms would lead us to a state that wouldn’t be good for us: easily manipulated, easily tracked and personal lives easily invaded by third parties (government, individuals and companies)
Carson Farmer noted that GMAIL is fundamentally better user experience because individuals didn’t need to run their own protocols or set up their own servers. This “natural” progression” to centralized technologies has served the Big Nine well.
Since then, it’s been this runaway because the capitalist value behind data– they are building business models behind it and it will not go away overnight. By putting our blind trust into a handful of corporations who collect our data, we’ve created a run-away effect (some folks call it ‘data network effects’) where those companies now create value from our data, that is orders of magnitude greater than any new entrant into the market is capable of. This means that the ‘greatest’ innovation around our digital data is coming from only a handful of large companies.
However, people, en-masse, don’t understand this imminent threat. Few really understand the implications of cybersecurity breaches, nor the impact to individual welfare or safety from the data they willingly provide these networks. How much of this needs mainstream to care about it to achieve the scalability it requires? Hill argues that few will abandon technologies unless their values are subdued by risk. Hill explained our “signaled intentions actually differ from our intended behaviors.” For example, many would support legislation to reduced speed limits in certain areas to minimize deaths auto accidents. However, engineering this feature into self-driving cars so they are unable to go faster, would be far more objectionable because it impedes us.
Adoption of a decentralized web cannot play by the old rules. New experiences and interactions that our outside of current norms needs to appeal to individual values, that enable trust and ease of adoption. Pulling users away from convention is not an easy task. However, emerging organizations are starting to build bridges into the old technology in an effort to re-decentralize. Matrix.org has created an open standard for decentralized communications. The Dat Project, largely funded mainly by donations provides a peer to peer file sharing protocol to create a more human-centered internet, without the risk of data being sold. For Textile.io their version of Instagram allows users to add a photo to their mobile application, which exists on your phone, with a privately encrypted copy existing on an IPFS (“a peer-to-peer protocol for sharing hypermedia in distributed file system”) node off your phone. No one sees the encrypted photo version unless you share the private keys to that photo. Textile has no view into the data, nor an intention of processing or keeping it. Handshake.org is a “permissionless and decentralized naming protocol to replace the DNS root file and servers with a public commons”, uncensorable and free of any gatekeeper. The Internet Archive, started by Brewster Kale, is a non-profit library that has cataloged over 400 billion web pages in the last 22 years, also digitizing all-things analog (books, music, movies), with the attempt to save web history and knowledge with free access to anyone.
Wendy Hanamura, Director of the Internet Archive is also the Founder of DWeb, a summit which started in 2016 bringing together builders and non-builders within the 4 levers of change: 1) laws 2) markets 3) norms and values 4) technology to advocate a better web. Hanamura has been instrumental in bringing together thought leaders to do a moonshot for the internet and create “A web that’s locked open for good.” Why now? Wendy declared,
In the last few years we have woken up to see that the web is failing us. We turn to our screens for information we are getting, instead, deception in fake news, non reliable information, missing data. A lot of us in the sector feel we could do better. Technology is one path to doing better.
The prevailing vision of the Dweb:
A goal in creating a Decentralized Web is to reduce or eliminate such centralized points of control. That way, if any player drops out, the system still works. Such a system could better help protect user privacy, ensure reliable access, and even make it possible for users to buy and sell directly, without having to go through websites that now serve as middlemen, and collect user data in the process.
While it’s still early day, for at least a decade many players have chosen to become part of this movement to fix the issues that increasing centralization has created. From Diaspora to Bit Torrent, a growing list of technologies continue to develop alternatives for the DWeb: for storage, social nets, communication and collaboration apps, database, cryptocurrencies, etc. Carson sees the Dweb evolving and feels the time is ripe for this opportunity:
Decentralization gives us a new way forward: decentralized data storage, encryption based privacy, and p2p networks give us the tools to imagine a world where individuals own and control their personal data. In that future, all technologies can build and contribute to the same data network effect. That is exciting because it means we can create a world with explosive innovation and value generation from our data, as opposed to one limited by the production capacity and imagination of those few companies…
Can the decentralized web fix this? In a world where trust is fleeting, this may be a significant pathway forward but it’s still early day. The DWeb is reawakening. The emergence of its players sees tremendous promise however, the experiences will need to get better. Many things must work in tandem. The public needs to be more informed of the impact on their individual rights and welfare. Business needs to change its mindset. I was reminded by Dr. George Tomko, Expert in Residence at the University of Toronto, that if business can become more human, to be more compassionate
…and have the ability to feel a person’s pain or discomfort and to care enough by collaborating with others in alleviating her pain or discomfort… what emerges is a society of greater empathy, and a culture that yields more success
Regulation has to also be in lock-step with technology but it must be informed and well thought out to encourage competition and minimize costs to the consumer. More importantly, we must encourage more solutions to bring more data control to the user to give him/her the experiences they want out of the web, without fear of repercussions. This was the original promise of the internet.