Internet

The Power of Crowd – Part Three: the Consequences of Change

Photo: Alex Holyoake

As I outlined in the earlier articles I believe we are at a crucial inflection point for the internet. While it has become integral and beneficial to many people, the way it is currently being used strays from the principles of the open web, in terms of equality of access, freedom of speech and transparency. The worldwide web has left a small group of companies holding most of the financial clout, while users are regularly exposed to invasions of privacy or censorship. At an even more basic level, the infrastructure is not in place for a large part of the global population to access the internet. The problem is that we have gone beyond the point of no return in our reliance on the internet to go about our daily lives. It will only become more pervasive in the future, but if we stick to the current model we will only perpetuate the existing problems. Therefore, we must to consider more radical reform to create a fairer, safer and more open internet, in line with the original principles behind the open web.

However, such change will also have far reaching consequences for our daily lives. It could affect how nation states interact with one another. It could alter how companies do business and require people to make more of a financial contribution to receive online services. I would contend that if we can get these changes right they will benefit everyone. We can improve privacy for individuals, protect free speech and foster fairer economic opportunities for everyone. I am not just saying this as a biased technologist. Hopefully everyone can agree the internet has had a positive impact on communities around the world. It has supported the rise of the global middle class, even if that it has left us with a lop-sided “shared” economy. What gives me hope is that there are new technologies emerging such as the decentralized web and crypto-currencies, which create the possibility of very different ways for societies to interact and trade. Philosophically this will be a heated debate, especially if it means suggesting an alternative economic model to the tried and tested ones. However, if we accept the world is filled with significant social and economic imbalances, and that the current version of the internet is helping to exacerbate them, then surely we should air the alternatives? And if a new generation of internet technologies could offer innovation, which might have a positive effect on social mobility, then shouldn’t we consider these options and the consequent effects for economic models?

There are many different ideas floating around, some have been around for a long time, some are newer. They might seem abstract in a discussion about the future of the internet, but now is surely the time for bold, if not radical departures from traditional ways of doing things. For example, if the future internet gives individuals greater control over their data, what will that mean for those online businesses who have relied on access to our personal information? If we no longer want to surrender our sensitive data in return for free services, then how should companies trade with us? If companies are allowed to continue to make significant profits from online commerce, should we consider more radical forms of taxation to improve access to the internet for the wider population? Will traditional currency still be needed in the future or would it be more efficient to turn to crypto-currencies entirely? Should we apply the model of open source software more broadly to give more universal, affordable access to products and services? Or should we do away with net neutrality and tier access so that everyone receives a form of internet service, which is commensurate with what they are prepared to paid for?

No matter what your response is to these questions, there are diverse economic and social models emerging, which turn away from many of the accepted principles of free trade economics. Below is a small sample of the theories up for discussion. Would one of these models be more appropriate than what we have today, or should we be even more radical?

Circular economy
This concept has its origins in developing a more sustainable approach to the use and disposal of resources. Rather than a linear view of production as “make, use, dispose” it reflects the cyclical model of nature where nothing is wasted. It is a stretch to suggest it can be applied wholesale to reforming the internet, but some form of circular economy could be more inclusive. Perhaps concepts such as recycling could challenge how we view ownership, with the internet enabling new models of shared or rented usage. For example, we could encourage less car ownership by enabling travellers to receive crypto-rewards for using alternative or shared forms of transport; or we could create a scheme to help less connected communities receive travel allowances from car users, taken as a crypto-tax when they use their vehicles.

Tech-Led Trustless Systems
Johann Gevers has put forward a theory that next generation technologies are encouraging the decentralization of the core pillars of society. This has the potential to enable communities to operate and govern themselves in a different way. He describes it as trustless technology, which means technology exists that removes doubt about the validity of a transaction or a user’s identity. We can guarantee an individual’s identity, be confident about privacy and be sure there won’t be cases of fraud or security breaches because the decentralised model overcomes the issues of the past. Technology of trust is decentralizing:

  • The way we talk to one another, thanks to tools such as encryption which enable more private conversations.
  • The legal system, as it offers individuals greater choice in how decisions are adjudicated.
  • Production, because 3D Printing means there is less of a need for mass production.
  • Finance through the arrival of crypto-currencies.

The biggest challenge for these trustless systems is the large number of people around the world who remain undocumented. If this approach worked it could dramatically change how we structure societies – perhaps moving away from larger sprawling urban environments to smaller communities inter-connected via the internet with like-minded communities sharing economic opportunity.

Digital Distributism
I have mentioned this before but it is a theory put forward by Douglas Rushkoff, which suggests internet culture is giving birth to companies like Etsy and peer-to-peer communities, supported by crypto-currencies. These communities are seen as less global and do not follow the model of organizations like Google and Facebook attempting to rule the world. Rather than be solely driven by profit these smaller societies seek to support everyone within the group, sharing wealth rather than taking it out for individual gain. It harks back to a time before free market economics when societies were more self-sustaining and using barter systems to trade goods and services. It does rely on individuals sacrificing personal gain to support the group and inherently if one community is in a resource rich location, then it will start with an advantage over others.

While these theories might sound like the product of a Silicon Valley brainstorm facilitated by a student of Ayn Rand, they are symbolic of the very exciting debates that are happening today. You only have to look at the emergence of events such as Sonar D+ to realise that some are already well on the path to exploring what a world powered by a different sort of internet might be like. This debate should be much broader, including representatives of every political and social persuasion, because consensus is going to be critical if we are to find the right solutions.

The Power of the Crowd – Part Two: the Tricky Questions

Photo: Emily Morter

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of tricky questions, but if we are seeking to build a new framework for the internet, we must debate the ones where there are no black and white answers. Though some may be unhappy with the conclusions, reaching consensus is essential. When it comes to something as pervasive as the internet we will have to find a way to reflect the diverse opinions of every section of society and accept that perhaps there will be some uncomfortable compromises.

Here goes with the initial list of questions and I would ask those of you reading this post to add others to build the list out.

Question one: what sort of internet do we actually want?
This is the most obvious, but also the most fundamental question. Since the arrival of the worldwide web many of us (particularly in developed economies) have become accustomed to convenient online services and “free” apps. Yet the same benefits are not available to everyone. Only 3 billion people are online today and access is heavily skewed in favour of people in developed economies. What about the rest? The speed and quality of access varies dramatically, even in the developed world. According to the Office of National Statistics, 11% of UK households have no internet access. Surely we should have resolved universal access to the Internet by now as a basic right in line with the United Nations’ decree?

Question two: how do we police the internet?
The pace of technological change will always leave regulators scrambling to keep up with its impact on the internet and how it affects us as citizens and consumers. Today, though, we appear to be living in a wild west scenario where nation states are using the internet legally to monitor their citizens and conduct cyber-attacks in what could be at best described diplomatically as economic and political espionage. Freedom House has said internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year and two-thirds of internet users live in countries where the authorities use censorship to limit access. And democratic countries are just as guilty of intrusion as supposedly more authoritarian regimes. The Governments of the “free world” have enacted new laws that legalise the mass surveillance that many have been conducting for at least 10 years. If we are to hold nation states to account for their oversight of the internet, then surely we all need to live by the same code of conduct? There has been talk of non-proliferation treaties in the same style as the nuclear disarmament treaty to encourage governments to moderate their behaviour.

However, if the United States officially says it is building an offensive cyber-security capability, then it goes without saying other countries will see that as a green light to follow suit.

Photo: Luca Bravo


Question three: who should be in charge?
We all live in countries with borders. We have passports that say we are British, American, Chinese or South African. And yet the internet has moved rapidly to break down geographic barriers. This has been a good thing in one sense, because it has enabled the sharing of information, such as scientific research for the betterment of everyone. Equally, though, it has allowed hackers to conduct criminal activities from jurisdictions beyond the reach of the law enforcement officials in individual countries. There are also those, who no longer see themselves as represented by their nation state and are using the internet to build new communities. Indeed the dark web and crypto-currencies are creating the potential for individuals to live by alternate social, economic and legal structures. This is of course an extreme alternative, how far do we allow the internet to encroach on traditional national boundaries? And how far do we allow national political agendas to determine the freedoms offered by the internet? What do we do if internet communities no longer want to adhere to the rules of one nation state?

Question four: how do we fix the foundations underpinning the internet?
There are billions of people around the world who are not connected to the internet. Without a physical connection the conversation about the future of the internet is a non-starter. More importantly there are many people around the world, in both developed and emerging economies, who continue to struggle to receive the minimum standards of education to enable them to read and write. Without these basic human rights the internet is pointless for them. Furthermore, there are many individuals without proper documentation. If these people do not exist then how can they participate in the opportunities of access to the internet? Given that cyber threats are so prevalent, if we cannot trust the identities of the people who are using the internet it will create barriers.

Question five: who owns the internet and all the content in it?
The principle of the open web, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, was that people on the internet were outside the control of governments. The Cluetrain Manifesto told companies that they could join their conversations, but that they didn’t have any right to control the conversation. Sadly today’s worldwide web is anything but a reflection of this aspiration. It is big business and that means those with a vested interest will resist change with all their might. Today Google and Facebook receive 65% of all advertising revenue through digital channels. And yet all that revenue is reliant on us surrendering personal information in exchange for services. This is not a fair exchange when you look at the profits the internet mega-brands generate from our data. Should we not have more of a say in how our data is used? Should we not have greater ownership of our data? Or should we accept that intellectual property, copyright and ownership are out-dated concepts? Clearly we cannot expect vendors to invest in technology and products without some form of recompense, but we need to agree that the current economic model is not distributing wealth evenly.

The Power of the Crowd Series – Part One: The Problem


Prologue
This is the first in a series of articles offering a perspective on the internet today and its impact on society, economies and geo-politics. It is my belief that the internet is broken, but rather than engage in a proper debate about how we fix it the policy makers and regulators are simply trying to band-aid the existing infrastructures. Therefore it is up to us, the users of the internet, to take back control, because we recognise the power the open web can offer everyone on this planet. At a time when discord and disunity seem to be more common place we need to champion the opportunities, accessibility and collaboration it was originally designed to offer.

Therefore in the spirit of the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace we should be looking to create a new set of guiding principles. We need to frame the debate about the future of the internet, before its fate is decided for us by politicians and business people, who do not share our vision. We first need to have a discussion about the problem child that is today’s worldwide web, air the challenges and difficult decisions we need to take, because we all must accept that compromises need to be made. The internet today is not the same as it was 20 plus years ago. It will be important to hear arguments from all sides, before we attempt to achieve consensus.

Ultimately it is my belief that we need some form of new social contract about the purpose and role the internet plays in our lives. We all see its potential, its ability to be a force for positive change, but we have all seen its dark side. This discussion is an overly ambitious attempt to seek shared values about what we should expect from the internet in terms of our freedom, privacy, accessibility and opportunity….today I’m asking the power of the crowd to join in the debate and help to find solutions.

The Power of The Crowd: The Problem
When Thomas Friedman wrote “The World is Flat” in 2000 it was hailed as one of the most influential assessments of the impending impact of the Internet. Although we were just about to experience the burst of the dot com bubble there was huge optimism about its potential to level the playing fields for everyone around the world in terms accessibility to information and creating opportunities to collaborate. However, Friedman also highlighted the many in-built inequalities in the existing social, economic and political structures that could potentially have an adverse effect. While he suggested that flattening the world would create new opportunities for those who had previously had little or no chance of social mobility it would also create unpleasant consequences for established economies, such as fierce competition for jobs and downward pressure on incomes.

It could be said that he painted a less than rosy picture in which everyone could really only look forward to uncertainty and instability:

“…today’s workers need to approach the workplace much like athletes preparing for the Olympics, with one difference. “They have to prepare like someone who is training for the Olympics but doesn’t know what sport they are going to enter…”
Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, 2000

Wind the clock forward to 2016 and we are witnessing both the positives and negatives of “The Flat World.” Economies in the developing world have grown rapidly, the global middle class has expanded, leading to greater social mobility, life expectancy and better standards of living, but equally increasing the demands on resources and the environment. Economies in the developed world have slowed down, productivity has continually declined and incomes have not grown in line with inflation. Of course if I was looking at this purely from a technology and entrepreneurial perspective I could argue it has created huge wealth, especially thanks to the first and second generation of internet companies, ranging from Amazon to Uber. Living standards have not declined in developed economies and we have very much benefited from access to the cheaper goods and workforce coming from the developing nations.

Even so, the suggestion that technology, and more precisely the Internet, has broken down barriers, redefined social norms for the better and created a more equal, fairer society would be an overstatement of the facts. In reality a small handful of technology companies (with a few minor exceptions) are the ones who have all the power and control of the infrastructure we use – you just need to look at the world’s rich list for proof that certain individuals and companies have done very nicely! As citizens and consumers we are dependent on them to give us access to services and communications tools, which originally were designed to be accessible to everyone.

Indeed we would do well to remember the words of the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, because it would seem we are a million miles away from their virtuous intentions.

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
John Perry Barlow, February 8, 1996


The Cluetrain Manifesto: 95 Theses

1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
38. Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns.
39. The community of discourse is the market.
40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
72. We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.
73. You’re invited, but it’s our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
78. You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.
89. We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, 2000

Today I believe the very thing that was supposed to break down physical and virtual barriers has failed. Nearly 50% of the global population is without effective access to the internet, never mind possessing the skills and education to exploit its potential. Indeed economically the gap between the world’s richest and everyone else has continued to get worse. Some commentators argue that traditional command and control organisations are dead, because the Millennials and all subsequent generations will refuse to work in the same formal, traditional structures. Sure, in the rarefied atmosphere of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world that approach may be true, but it is not generally the case. If anything it has taken away opportunities for many in established industries as disruptive technologies based on the internet have turned business models upside down.

Politically everyone pointed to the Arab Spring as a sign of “hope” that instant, unfettered communication could lead to significant political and economic change. We saw Obama become the first President to exploit social media to engage audiences and everyone said that was a good thing for democracy. Likewise some would argue Trump has used the same mechanism to give voice to those people who have been forgotten in the great tech rush. Others question whether we’re now in a situation where (allegedly) student hackers in Macedonia can create a news agenda to decide a Presidential election in return for a lucrative income from digital ad revenue.

Furthermore, the threat of cyber-attack, enabled by the internet, has encouraged governments around the world to adopt far more aggressive stances around national security. Cyber-spying is the latest fashion where any Government with enough money can employ professional hackers to steal industrial secrets or bring down the national grid of a nation state they are not getting along with. And of course if your Government doesn’t like what you’re doing they’ve probably just passed a law to allow them to spy on you without requiring much in the way of legal oversight.

So, if this has left you feeling thoroughly despondent…good. We should all be pretty disappointed with how the internet has turned out and the effect it has had or not had on all our lives. Frankly it is time, now that the internet is more than 20 years old, that we sat down and had a proper conversation about where we want it to go next. It cannot carry on as it is, but we face difficult questions with no easy answers.

Of course we could just stick our heads in the collective sand, but I’m pretty certain that will only make things worse…