The Internet @ 30: Big hope to big bother

 (Jayachandran/Mint)

Thirty years ago, one March day in 1989, at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, 33-year-old British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee handed his boss Mike Sendall a note, blandly titled Information Management: A Proposal. The abstract of the proposal read: “This proposal concerns the management of information about accelerators and experiments at CERN. It discusses the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.”

Sendall read the proposal and wrote on its first page: “Vague but exciting…” After some thought, he gave Berners-Lee the go-ahead. And the internet was born.

(Technically, no. What Berners-Lee—now Sir Tim Berners-Lee—invented was the World Wide Web, not the internet. The internet already existed; it was essentially a wide-area network (WAN) of computers which let the users talk to one another and share data. The internet is infrastructure while the Web is a service on top of that infrastructure. As someone put it, one can think of the internet as a bookstore and the Web as the collection of books in that store. So, Sir Tim’s invention made the internet what it is today. Thus, in practical terms, March 2019 marks 30 years of the Internet.)

Here is the very first website ever, built by Berners-Lee and his team: bit.ly/19uEIk0.

It is obviously the ultimate cliché to say that the internet has immeasurably changed the world. There is perhaps no aspect of our lives—public or private—that has not been impacted by the net. It has been an immensely powerful force of good, and it has only covered half the planet’s people till now. We also know that there is much more that it can deliver—its scope is only limited by our imagination.

No one seems to have any clear figure about how much the internet has helped the global economy, except for a 2011 McKinsey Global Institute report which said: “The internet accounted for 21% of the gross domestic product growth in mature economies over the past five years. If we include the large, emerging economies of China, India, and Brazil, the internet accounted for 11% (of growth) over the past five (years).” But that was 2011. Much has changed since then, especially in terms of the growth of the internet in China and India.

So why has Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in an interview to BBC earlier in March, said that global action is required to tackle the Web’s “downward plunge to a dysfunctional future”?

Do no evil

In an open letter (bit.ly/2VRCKWb) released on 12 March, Sir Tim said: “While the Web has created opportunity, given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier…it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the Web is really a force for good.”

For starters, increasingly, states have been weaponizing the internet.

In 2013-2014, China’s People’s Liberation Army’s hackers stole 21.5 million personnel files from the US Office of Personnel Management. The stolen files contained every intimate personal detail about almost anyone who has ever needed a “secret” or “top secret” security clearance from the US government.

On 27 June 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hackers devastated computer systems across Ukraine. Hospitals, banks, power companies, airports, ATMs, card payment systems, and almost all government agencies were hit. Unofficial estimates are that up to 30% of all computers in the country were wiped clean of data.

Come closer home. Think of the ad-based revenue models where users are offered free services in exchange for their data—from basic demographics to their secret desires, from their movements to their objects of hatred. It’s a boundless ocean of data about us that is fed to artificial intelligence programs lurking behind these services. These are the most powerful surveillance machines the world has ever seen.

Your data is crunched along with data from millions of other users so that the firms’ algorithms can learn and make sure Google and Facebook show us ads right at the moment when we may be most open to considering buying those products or services.

It is this data—which we give away for free—that generates vast profits and makes a small number of smart people extraordinarily wealthy while the rest don’t get anywhere. There is a massive transfer of wealth taking place in our economies that may lead to a disturbingly inegalitarian future.

Then, there is the matter of privacy. Most of us have no idea how much Google and Facebook and Amazon know about us and what rights we should have over our data. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, effective since May 2018, is the first concrete step towards protecting an individual’s data. India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 is likely to be tabled in Parliament by the next government.

Growing Uber-ization

Consider the Uber-ization of our economies, which has certainly contributed to the decline of formal employment and the rise of the gig economy, which offers flexibility and freedom, but does not provide any of the stability and long-term benefits of a normal full-time job.

Hundreds of Uber-like companies have sprouted in the 10 years since Uber was born—“Uber” for laundry; for groceries; even for dog walking. Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic studied 105 such US companies, which represented $7.4 billion of venture capital investment. Four of them are already “unicorns”.

But, as Madrigal writes (bit.ly/2EUsEhM): “These apps concretize the wild differences that the global economy currently assigns to the value of different kinds of labour. Some people’s time and effort are worth hundreds of times less than other people’s…What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant…(These are) platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.”

Social media has many positives, but it has also allowed people to be abusive in public like never before in the history of civilization. Abuse, pass cruel judgment on people you don’t know at all, be malicious just for the heck of it.

And social media companies may be quite happy about this. The primary objective of a social media company is engagement. Negative emotions like anger are triggered more easily and stay with us longer than positive ones. And here is an environment where you can get away with saying stuff that you won’t have the guts to or be ashamed to tell someone face to face. All the reward you can get from a social network is attention, and it’s a proven fact that the more obnoxious you are, the more attention you get.

Social media is turning us into nastier people.

Besides, there is the rising menace of fake news. All of us suffer from confirmation bias, and we tend to trust information that strengthens our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. And social media algorithms make sure that we are served messages that play to our confirmation biases, creating for all of us echo chambers that limit our horizons, and encourage our bigotries. We pass on false information without bothering to verify anything and spread divisive and often incendiary messages. This has sometimes led to violence and even murder of innocent people.

And we know, from the Russian attempts to rig the 2016 US presidential elections, that social media can be manipulated at a very low cost. All you need is some ingenuity about how to game the system.

Early hopes and hard reality

As the world celebrates 30 years of the internet, one should look back at what the original visionaries dreamed of. They thought of the net as a wonderful tool that would connect common people of the world; allow them to freely exchange information and ideas; and be a great bottom-up force for global peace and democracy.

However, what we see now is something quite different.

Large parts of the internet today are dominated by a few players. Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft control much of the innovation and opportunities online and are shaping the online world and its use.

As the Internet Society says in its 2019 Global Internet Report (bit.ly/2WrRWda): “The development of new applications, services and businesses across the global economy is increasingly dependent on a small number of private platforms owned by the largest internet companies…(The) risk of growing societal dependencies…is magnified by exceptional economic power (of these companies). That a company or technology is vulnerable to disruption, evolution, and competition has been one of the internet’s defining successes—what the Internet Society calls the characteristic of ‘no permanent favourites’. This characteristic could be challenged as dependencies continue to grow.”

Whenever these companies see a startup creating an innovative service that could be a future competitor, they simply buy the firm. So, a user may shift from Facebook Messenger to WhatsApp, but WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. Many younger people are switching from Facebook to Instagram, but Facebook owns Instagram.

Will all innovation and potentially disruptive ideas then have to pass through the platforms and standards owned by this small number of corporations?

Internet’s Iron curtain

On the other hand, you have a totalitarian regime like China which has built the Great Firewall around its internet. Among the more than 10,000 sites that China blocks are Google, Bing, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Netflix and, of course, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. So, the average Chinese citizen has the internet, but hardly any access to news, information, and opinions that have not been approved by the government.

Censors are omnipresent. Nothing goes unmonitored and anything that even vaguely smells suspicious invites immediate reprisal. When a few Chinese bloggers humorously compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to the cuddly Winnie the Pooh, the government blocked all search requests for the beloved fictional bear.

According to Amnesty International, China has the largest number of imprisoned cyber-dissidents in the world. And it’s getting scarier. China is training and providing technology to other authoritarian regimes on net censorship. This is a serious threat to democracy around the world.

Now, Russia wants to unplug itself from the greater World Wide Web and create a “sovereign” network.

The government says that this will protect the country’s internet from foreign cyberattacks or other threats. But international human rights groups and Putin’s opponents say it is an attempt to restrict information flow.

The proposal is to route all Russian internet and data through a central point controlled by the state. Theoretically, this would allow the government to cut off the Russian internet from the rest of the global network. The law would grant more powers to Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s federal censor. This will be, quite simply, the new iron curtain.

India has a much better record on internet freedom. Governments have mostly concentrated on blocking porn sites and specific URLs that were allegedly spreading misinformation. In democracy watchdog Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report (bit.ly/2zhm7tu), India ranks 30th among the 65 countries surveyed. But that could change for the worse and it could be done so smoothly by a clever government that we might not even notice until our rights were already severely curtailed.

With the elections beginning within a fortnight from now, echo chambers and fake news are grave dangers. And in the last few years, social media in India has been flooded with fake news and hate speech. Deliberately falsified or misleading content is a powerful tool in the hands of politicians. But it cuts both ways. Politicians can also use “fake news” as a pretext to suppress facts. Our rationality will be facing some very tough tests in the coming weeks.

So, 30 years on, the internet needs some serious fixing. The very future of how we run our lives and societies may be at stake. Is it possible at all? In the words of Sir Tim: “Given how much the Web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the Web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better Web now, then the Web will not have failed us. We will have failed the Web.”

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

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