The internet, a work in progress
If you read nothing else online today, at least cast an eye over the open letter written by the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of its invention, “The web is under threat. Join us and fight for it”. The article sounds a warning about the suffocating control of the web by a handful of companies who will greatly restrict innovation in the coming years.
It has never been harder to innovate on the internet: unless you are already protected by one of the giants, your only hope is that one of them buys you: these companies control not only the available resources and acquire any minimally innovative project that they believe they can take advantage of, but also control the spread of ideas. And as Berners-Lee points out, the consequences of this are already being felt.
The internet’s current problems — having contributed to the expansion of extremist ideas and the manipulation of democracy by conditioning many people’s vote, based on the spread of alarmist content, along with a widespread lack of education and understanding about social networks — are now rooted in the economic interests of a few companies.
Zeynep Tufekci, who teaches at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, writes in today’s New York Times in an article called “YouTube, the great radicalizer”, about the platform’s annoying habit of inundating us with recommendations created by its algorithms every time we watch a video there. Tufekci says these recommendations, intended to increase the amount of time we spend on the site, tend to offer content that is far more radical than that we have just watched. During the US election campaign, she says this often produced speeches by Donald Trump, recommendations from white supremacists, Holocaust deniers and other far-right extremists. Similarly, if you open a new account and watch videos of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, the platform encourages you to watch conspiracy theory videos about secret government agencies or plots related to 9/11. The phenomenon was not limited to politics: watch a video about fitness and you get content about ultra-marathons. If your interest is vegetarianism, the next step is videos about veganism.
Presumably, Google and YouTube have no sinister purpose in mind and just want us to spend more time on the platform. If you’re going to design an algorithm to increase the amount of time somebody spends on YouTube, what’s the easiest way? Choose content similar to what you have watched, but more extreme. Tufekci’s article highlights the very dangers Berners-Lee warns about in his letter: the commercial interests of a few companies are now a serious threat to the internet, largely because they seem unaware of their power, or are not concerned about how they exercise it. The profits of a few companies are radicalizing our societies, generating problems we have no idea how to solve.
Berners-Lee argues in favor of regulation. To be honest, I’m not so sure that’s a route we want to take. Regulation, in today’s compartmentalized world, with each country defending its own interests, would be useless in most cases. Internet regulation in some countries is mainly about depriving people of access to certain content or exposure to certain sources and points of view. Good luck trying to influence regulation in countries such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and of course China: the fact that in China, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are replaced by Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent is not because the latter are better in any way, but because of regulations that have systematically excluded foreign companies, in the same way that the United States now intends to do with Chinese companies such as Huawei or with ZTE. Regulation, in a world where we have superimposed a global network of a bundled regulation, now has few possibilities to straighten things out, I’m afraid.
In short, the internet is a work in progress, and nobody said it was ever going to be simple. One of the most ambitious projects humanity has ever undertaken, it is also subject to huge interests that want to control it. As said, if you get the chance, read Berners-Lee, and Tufekci, for that matter. If they help us to think about these issues and to be more aware of what’s going on, that will be progress in itself.
(En español, aquí)