It’s not just Twitter. whole Internet is broken and we’d better fix it soon

If the controversy over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter tells us anything, it’s that people — including those in governments — don’t understand how the World Wide Web works.

We know that the algorithms Twitter uses to recommend content can instruct people to develop more extreme views, but what counts as extremist has changed since Musk’s takeover. Many of the things he considers free speech were once thought to be demeaning, misogynistic, violent, or harmful in many other ways.

Many countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand as co-initiator of the Christchurch Call, are looking to Twitter and other platform providers to allow analysis of their algorithms and more transparency about their effects on individuals and the social fabric.

What the Christchurch Call does not address, however, is a more fundamental question that governments must urgently consider. Is it appropriate that the infrastructure to host citizen discourse and engagement be in the hands of multinational data and profit monopolists?

Privately owned social media platforms now comprise a large part of public discussions that are important and essential to democracy. They have become the core of the modern public sphere and must therefore be considered an important part of the public infrastructure.

But they are set up to collect and monetize people’s data. It’s time for governments to help their citizens take back control of that data.

The web is down

The World Wide Web began as a global network with a set of open technical standards to make it easier for someone from a remote computer (also known as a client) to be given access to information on another person’s computer (also known as a server).

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Embedded in Web standards is a principle called hypertext, which means that a reader can choose to follow hyperlinks, browsing the World Wide Web of information in a self-directed manner.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, people created their own websites, manually authoring HTML pages and linking to content posted by others. This has been replaced by content management systems and perhaps most importantly – blogging software.

Blogs unlocked the publishing of content to the masses, but it was only when social media platforms – also known as Web 2.0 – appeared that anyone with access to the Internet could become a content producer. And this was when the web broke, over 15 years ago. It has been broken ever since.

Not only do social media platforms put content out of the control of those who create it, but they also serve as a monolithic interface between an entire generation and the actual web. Gen Z has never experienced the decentralized nature of the technologies that make the apps they use work.

Instead, every social media platform is trying to make the entire World Wide Web just one app on one big server. This principle applies to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and all other social media apps.

The result is that platforms collect interactions in order to identify users and direct them to content through ‘recommendation’ algorithms. This means that people can be like that
Targeted at products they can buy, or their behavioral data and insights can be sold to other companies.

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How to fix the Internet

In response to the disruption caused by Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, we’ve seen governments and organizations create their own servers to join the decentralized microblogging system Mastodon. These organizations can now validate the identity of the users they host and ensure that their content falls within their own terms and potential legal requirements.

However, taking back control of microsites is not enough to fix a broken web. Social media platforms have made attempts in the past to embed more basic functions such as payments and banking. People have also been arbitrarily denied access to the platforms, with no legal means of regaining access.

Thinking of large-scale regulation on its own will not solve the problem in the long term and on a global scale.

Instead, governments will need to take stock of the digital services and data currently hosted on social media platforms that are critical parts of modern democratic societies. Then, they will have to create national data infrastructures that allow citizens to stay in control of their data, and have their government protect it.

We can expect a new ecosystem of digital services to develop around these data infrastructures, but one that does not disenfranchise individuals or make them products of surveillance capitalism.

This is not a utopian vision. The Flemish government in Belgium has announced the creation of a data utility company to facilitate the digital ecosystem based on personal data lockers. Citizens control these vaults and any digital services that need the data to interact with if given permission (for example, public transportation payment systems or content-sharing systems like Twitter).

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Many blockchain companies want people to believe that their technology allows “Web3”, but the technologies to achieve this vision are already in place and take advantage of the original standards of the World Wide Web. Web technologies for decentralization and openness have been calling for Web 3.0 for about 20 years now. They have matured into strong, market-ready products for personal data safes.

Governments must now build the technical backend with regulatory oversight to ensure algorithmic transparency and trusted digital transactions. We need rich data infrastructures, managed by data utility companies.

Technologies and expertise are readily available, but we need a greater awareness of what true tech decentralization means, and why it will protect citizens and democracy in the long run.

Conversation

Markus Luczak-Roesch has received funding from the National Science Fiction Challenge for Technological Innovation under the Veracity Technology Project. It is also affiliated with Te Pūnaha Matatini – Aotearoa New Zealand Center of Excellence in Complex Systems Research.

/ Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the original organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, and is edited for clarity, style, and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).

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