Surfing in a Gilded Cage- The web is not free
Remember the massive outrage when the FCC proposed a change in Net Neutrality laws? The one that threw the internet up in arms about it? I’m sure many of you do. Tech sites reported vigorously on it, while crowdfunded protests such as this sprang up.
Saving the internet. That was what it was about. The very freedom of the internet was at stake. Greedy ISPs sought to undermine our freedom to access websites and information at will through their premium internet fast-lanes, all important for a healthy, well-informed society for the sake of profit. The internet was a public utility and belonged to the public. Of course, this is still being debated today. No surprise there, a free internet has become the very foundation of contemporary society.
Unfortunately, the internet isn’t free. That hasn’t been the case for a long while. Plenty of people have claimed that the internet was the greatest disruptive force on markets that we have ever seen, removing the gatekeepers that were the media conglomerates. The floodgates have opened and now anyone can have their voice heard.
The truth is, we've only replaced the old media monoliths with newer, larger ones. Google (Or should I call them Alphabet now?), Facebook, Amazon, all of these entities are replacing the functions that the old guard served. A 2013 study conducted by Pew in 2012 shows that 83% of search engine users use Google. Another study conducted in Pew found that Facebook was the go to social media site for 71% of American teens. And quick internet searches more or less shows you clear signs of market concentrations.
These services are not free. Our personal information is sold to advertisers in exchange for Google’s services. Amazon takes a small percentage of sales earnings from the products sold by third party users.
And despite claims of the disappearance of the old gatekeepers, we are still subject to information controls. The type of information control we are subject can be best surmised in a single quote:
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg
And that is to say that for profit companies will always develop algorithms that will maximise their profits. An article by the Times explaining Facebook’s NewsFeed algorithm states that sociologists argue that Facebook is structured to create warm fuzzy happy feelings. To paraphrase what the sociologist said there, “people will like likeable things.” Another research that was published stated that positive emotions were more prevalent than negative emotions in Facebook. The data scientists of Facebook labours away at finding methods to keep people ‘liking’ and clicking to keep the ad revenues flowing. Google meanwhile, has been prioritising its own sites, attracting scrutiny from the European Commission.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the personalisation of content. But when the control of the flow of content remains at the hand of corporations, we shouldn’t act surprise when content is curated in a manner that maximises profits. The very survival of these corporations depends on whether or not they can turn a profit to keep the share holders and investors coming.
The point here is not that no one can publish their videos on Youtube or a blog on Medium. It’s that we are giving up control of how we consume these content to the hands of impersonal forces who decides the flow of information based on their balance sheet.
As the internet becomes increasingly integrated into our society, services offered by Youtube and Google and Twitter are becoming more of a utility than a commodity. The centralisation of the internet only increases the risks to society. We’ve seen what happens when banks became too big to fail. What happens when it’s the internet’s turn?
While much of the internet remains a closed system (even Medium), we can change this. There are opened systems showing up in a few places here and there, though they are still in their infancy. If we were to develop open systems where we can truly personalise our content, we can free ourselves from the bubble that we are trapping ourselves in. Until then, it’ll be some time before we can break out from the cage.