As the U.S. (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 our mutual best friend and everyday companion: the Internet. It was once Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars reference! Call me, Disney), meant to bring balance to the Force and be the great equaliser, voice for the voiceless, harbinger of democracy and the dissemination 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 us, Democracy has lost its shine, and Jeff Bezos keeps trying to get inside my house. Is this the Internet’s future? Or could it get even worse? Dr. Cox, your thoughts?
A more eloquent man than myself once said “We don’t use the expression IRL […]. We say AFK — Away From Keyboard. We think that the internet is for real.” He’s right: the changes coming to the Internet will have real impacts, both digital and analog. The Microwaved-Circus-Peanut-In-Chief and “fake news” are mere symptoms of a wider disease that spread because we did not take the internet seriously, at every level of government and within society itself. 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 your AFK life, in one way or another. But at what price?
In some countries, U.S. 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 you can watch shows on Netflix then jump over to Gmail — you’d watch Facebook TV and send Facebook Messages, and all with the government’s blessing, as it’d make control and surveillance easier. Sounds far fetched? Don’t we already post photos on Instagram, communicate with Whatsapp and get news from Facebook’s feed, all of which are Facebook-owned? The same applies to Google and our work life. This is not science fiction, this is the reality we are 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 b is the idea that gave birth to the idea of “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 is, such as the telegram. The democratisation of access to knowledge is mankind’s greatest invention. This ought to be one of the main talking point of attack for any antitrust lawyers going after Facebook or Google.
Even if strong anti-monopoly laws are put in place, privacy would still suffer from ANY amount of centralisation.
Back in the days, our parents taught us not to get in strangers’ cars, and not to meet people from the internet. As an adult, we literally summon strangers from the internet to get in their car and tell them where we live. And we’re willing to tell a lot more to Google and Facebook than Uber: your laptop and that smartphone grafted to your hand are double agents, providing everything to (nearly) everyone with something to sell, from your location to your lover’s address (yes, those two are linked). What we look at, where we go and even what we say can be used to paint a spot-on portrait.
Silicon Valley wants us to think the price of using the internet is letting them data-mine our lives. They’re 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. 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’re also a reminder of how much data these companies have on us. The more big-brother-averse among us are struggling with this new normal, which I think has as much to do with the data as it does with intimacy: maybe you don’t want people to know you added 48 Ed Sheeran songs to your ‘I Love Gingers’ playlist.
All of the above doesn’t even broach the matter of hacks and all that data falling in the wrong hands. And it has. And it will continue to, because we’re lazy and sloppy with our interneting. Below is the list of how many times my information was exposed, courtesy of a New York Times test. And I don’t even live in the U.S…. how bad is it for those who do?
Here are a few helpful guide on how to keep a few things to yourself:
I love the Internet, and I 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:
1. Protect customer data rights
It’s my data, how the hell to you have any right to it? This is the hardest one to achieve as giving away free information grants us access to free services such as Google and Facebook. But there has to be a line somewhere, and asking companies to pay to use may be an interesting place to start. We can keep track of where 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. What the heck, let the price be determined by markets. If you received 5 cents every time you gave your email address to a company, how quickly would you make a dollar? Ten? This would force companies to rethink much of their business plans, but wouldn’t hit the bottom line as much as we’d think, according to my calculations.
2. Break up the big monopolies
that movement is likely to come from a 2018 senator-to-be eyeing up the presidency. We’re currently electing regulators who have neither the backbone nor the capacity to actually go after tech companies, but that will change when the 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 Mayweather/McGregor redux: a lot of talk and showmanship followed by a methodical sh*t-kicking of the redhead.
3. Inflict the mother of all fines on companies that don’t play by the rules
this one will likely come from Europe, who’s seeing all the negatives from the rise of the Big Four without any of the positives. Currently, we 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 our American friends agree or not.
The internet doesn’t have to be a corporate playground. That’s just the path we’ve chosen.