On the 29th birthday of the World Wide Web, its father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, posted a warning about its future.
Berners-Lee leads off with some exciting news: “This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online.” Then poses two questions we need answers for:
- How do we get the other half of the world connected?
- Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?
He pledges the Web Foundation to fight to get everyone online, and “make sure the web works for people.”
The post (which also appears in The Guardian and Axios.com, and possibly elsewhere) is correct, as far as it goes, but a strategy to win the goals he’s looking for is lacking.
In this post, I want to focus on the latter goal. Of course, we want to get everyone on the planet online, but it will require a social movement to preserve the Web as something that works for people. Social movements aren’t easy to build.
Sir Tim explains the problem
There’s some really good stuff here (emphasis added):
The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.
What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.
His solution is a bit hazier. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.”
Bright Minds Not Enough
Smart people will be needed to save the web, but a successful movement will need all kinds of people. Case in point: The 2016 Decentralized Web Summit. A bunch of brilliant people gathered at the Internet Archive for two days. Founders of the internet (including Berners-Lee) met with younger developers of the incipient decentralized web.
The first day had the founders of the internet offer a set of keynote addresses pointing the way forward, and describing what had gone wrong with their brainchildren in the last 25 years.
The second day focused on workshops where developers of different decentralized projects got to meet with each other and get a sense of what was coming. Some reporters attended to document the event, and some other people (including me) got very excited about the possibilities. You can read more about it here.
Two years later, and progress has been limited, though anger at the state of the internet rises. The danger of its domination by what Farhad Manjoo calls “the Frightful Five”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (occasionally joined by Twitter) is just one component of what’s been called the “techlash.”
Why has progress been so limited? I will argue that the value and benefits of the decentralized web have not been communicated to enough people. Many people have an uneasiness about a corporate-dominated online future but feel powerless to stop it. A vision of a solution and a plan to achieve the vision can relieve that feeling of powerlessness. That’s when we can change the internet for the better.
So how do we get there? Let’s start with some basic principles.
Principles for a pro-Web movement
As I write this, tens of thousands of young people in the United States walked out of some 3000 schools this morning at 10 AM to mark the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They presented concrete demands for changes in the law to prevent any more school shootings. They believe that when people act, politicians will move.
They have lessons to teach us, even for people who want to change something as ubiquitous — and obscure — as the internet. Some brief thoughts on what to do.
While there are plenty of organizations out there that seek to broadly change the world, sometimes you need a smaller, tighter group concentrated on one issue. The fight for the open, democratic, decentralized web should have such an organization or coalition of organizations.
The internet is a global network of networks, and the fight to preserve and extend it should be a World Wide Web. And not necessarily led by the usual suspects from the industrialized global North.
Opponents of the student walkout tried to pose an alternative, suggesting that instead of “walking out” of school as citizens in a democracy, people should “walk up” to a stranger; try making more friends with unpopular kids who might grow up to be a shooter someday. The two ideas aren’t exactly counterposed — citizens can still make more friends. The kids understood that politicians still play a role.
The fight to preserve net neutrality in the US (which, incidentally, involved a lot of young people) aimed to bring ordinary folk together. Anyone trying to preserve and extend the internet should also aim to involve and activate as many people as possible.
Involving people in a fight they don’t have a stake in is a recipe for failure. Sure, get those smart people into a room to discuss what may need to be done, but the folks who will take that campaign forward need to understand and buy into it. That isn’t a technological solution, it’s a participative activity.
Let’s move forward.
What do you think? How could you see getting involved in the fight for a better web? Is a meeting of “the best and the brightest” all we can do to preserve, democratize and extend the internet? Are there other principles we need to win? Say your peace below.