News that Cambridge Analytica exploited the huge cache of Facebook user data, and that Facebook elevated commercial interests above user safety, is just the latest disaster highlighting that the Internet is a dangerous system.
The problem of bad actors manipulating the Internet has been snowballing for years. Low barriers to entry, freedom of participation and openness no longer characterise the Internet, which now is a force bursting societies apart at their seams, enabling small groups to wreak havoc on ever larger numbers of people.
In 2014 Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, proposed an online ‘Magna Carta’ to protect the Internet, as a neutral system, from government and corporate manipulation. He was responding after revelations that British and US spy agencies were carrying out mass surveillance programmes; the Cambridge Analytica scandal makes his proposal as relevant as ever.
While conventional thinking reacts to these events by calling for the Internet to be saved, the crises strike with such frequency and severity that they test the resolve of even the Internet’s best defenders. In response to the continued ‘weaponisation’ of the web, Berners-Lee said last year: ‘I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence … We have to grit our teeth and hang on to the fence and not take it for granted that the web will lead us to wonderful things.’
I no longer believe that the Internet can be saved: it’s too late. The arguments that it can be saved by a bill of rights-style Magna Carta or through more specific regulation are too little too late.
That is because calls to save the Internet are based on the false assumption that it is a neutral system. The Internet’s central design features – protocols, domains, networks, servers, data, codes – and its governance structures are deeply political and embedded within political and economic structures.
Consider ‘grey power’. Luciano Floridi, professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the Oxford Internet Institute, explains that grey power is not ordinary socio-political or military power. It is not the ability to directly influence others, but rather the power to influence those who influence power. To see grey power, you need only look at the hundreds of high-level instances of revolving-door staffing patterns between Google and European governments and the U.S. Department of State.
And then there is ‘surveillance capitalism’. Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, proposes that surveillance capitalism is ‘a new logic of accumulation’. The incredible evolution of computer processing power, complex algorithms and leaps in data storage capabilities combine to make surveillance capitalism possible. It is the process of accumulation by dispossession of the data that people produce.
The respected security technologist Bruce Schneier recently applied the insights of surveillance capitalism to the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook crisis, observing that ‘advances in both big data analysis and artificial intelligence will make tomorrow’s applications far creepier than today’s.’
For Schneier, ‘regulation is the only answer.’ He cites the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect next month, which stipulates that users must consent to what personal data can be saved and how it is used.
But not everyone has the same confidence in regulation. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, co-founder of PersonalData.IO which helps people protect their personal data, recently told BBC’s Click that there are already very strong regulations in place. But these are worse than useless because they are not enforced. Regulators, who see themselves as balancing commercial with democratic interests, regarding personal data, have done ‘too much on the side of commercial interests and not enough on the counter balances.’
Grey power and surveillance capitalism nudge regulators to come down too often on the side of commercial and state interests against the public good. But it is the Internet’s own design features which ultimately give rise to new and unprecedented global monopolies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest. It enables the NSA and GCHQ to surveille the personal lives of people around the world. The Internet has become the largest global platform to amplify power and privilege since the end of the cold war; and it cannot be saved.
So what could take its place? New decentralised ‘Web 3.0’ technologies are emerging which aim to overturn the disempowerment that the vast majority of people face around the world. Blockchain technologies – which include Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and stateless courts – remove unnecessary intermediaries and third parties who centralise wealth and decision-making power.
These technologies, while facing many problems and still in their nascent phase of development, claim to let people to organise themselves beyond physical and national borders. These systems do not rely on regulation or on states and corporations to behave responsibly, but rather on decentralisation and cryptography, to let people control what personal data they want to release and how it is used. These systems render Google, Facebook, Amazon, Cambridge Analytica, states, and other digital behemoths, toothless.
Today’s Internet is a danger to people and society. It’s time to consider the alternatives.
Chris Spannos is digital editor at New Internationalist and author of the forthcoming book How to reinvent the Internet to change the world.