Why the Internet Needs to Evolve (Again)

Today, the Internet stands for two things in the minds of the masses. To some, the term means a foundational infrastructure, a technology that enables computers to communicate around the globe. But for the majority, the word conjures up something far more amorphous. You only have to ask different people around the world to describe the Internet to see the evidence. For many millions, the entire online experience exists solely inside the Facebook app on their mobile. We all have differing experiences of the world online and descriptions become far more subjective.

A Network Of Networks

In the early days, the Internet was very much defined by its functionality. The world that saw the creation of the ARPANET was one where US government funding drove the construction of a communications network that would scale vast distances. And it was this niche focus that led to a vital innovation in the form of the creation of the TCP/IP packet-switching protocol almost exactly 45 years ago to the day.

Relatively few computers were involved by today’s standards. Any concerns that existed were overwhelmingly focused on the drive to build global connectivity — not security. It was all about connecting ‘networks of networks’. Global connectivity was the killer app of the so-called internetworking age — because the sole goal was very specific: to get the internet working.

Enter The World Wide Web…

It all changed in March 1989 with the publication of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal to link and share information across the internet in a novel way. With the creation of the World Wide Web, many of the barriers to global involvement fell. But still, the creativity that was unleashed was still contained within specific well-defined boundaries. Innovation remained untapped whilst the evolution to the World Wide Web meant in many cases just an extension to the ‘broadcast-to-many’ approach to the sharing of information.

Technology had stepped out of the shadows in order to lay a number of powerful tools at the feet of society — emails, early forms of ecommerce and the like. Yet the online landscape remained wild and, for most, uncharted. With the trails hidden from all but the most enthusiastic of early computer hobbyists, the land grab commenced as third parties rushed forward to compete and curate content on behalf of others (for a fee, of course). Suddenly this brave new world had evolved itself into a dead-end as the default online experience became one controlled by the Compuserves and AOLs whose vision was to encircle, protect and monetise.

For a brief time, the battle of open versus closed systems raged. But the fundamental flaws of the walled garden approach became clear very quickly. The open and wild internet may have been a scary place — but from that freedom came the opportunity for real innovation and opportunities for all.

Web 2.0, aka The Read/Write/Edit Web

Connectivity and access had driven the ubiquity of the Internet as a technology for general use. But there was a huge hole in the picture. Without user-generated content, engagement was low.

With the Web 2.0 movement, vast quantities of data was uploaded by individuals in the headlong rush into the read/write/edit web. Now everybody could comment and share their thoughts with a freedom that was unimaginable from the earliest days of the Internet. But as the masses rushed to share their latest news and views across social media platforms and individual blogs, one fatal detail was being overlooked. In the reckless rush online to engage in the pursuit of entertainment and commerce, people freely shared their personal data. Small technology startups, fuelled and fattened by an unlimited torrent of valuable data, exploded in size at a pace previously unheard of, dominating as a result of network effects and their global reach online.

This data — our data — had become a ridiculously valuable treasure trove of information with a value that accelerated with every passing year. The value was going directly to the companies, rather than individuals. And as the amount of data accelerated, so did the attacks.

Connectivity is not Security

Because the Web had been designed to be connected — not secure. With every new day, personal data was being sacrificed at the altar of convenience by millions of people without a thought for the trustworthiness of third parties. Too late, people had started to become conscious that they had not been asking enough questions. It wasn’t only: do you trust each company with your data? But also: do you trust that company to never ever get hacked?

It had become abundantly clear. Security online was broken. No company could ever be unhackable. But like the proverbial oil tankers, shipping valuable data instead of oil, these engorged technology company behemoths were by this stage too colossal to turn round.

The Next Evolution: Decentralisation

But today, there is a growing acknowledgement that the solution is out there. The evolution of the Decentralised Web, or Web3 movement is hard to miss. Recent advances in peer-to-peer technology have made it possible to demand all three features in our Internet experience for the first time: connectivity, engagement and security. On top of that, the creation of the cryptocurrency movement has provided a framework for financial incentives for individuals to take part in building a new, fairer Web that removes the weaknesses of third parties, in return for direct monetary rewards.

Like all paradigm shifts, this new world will neither be easy to build nor its success obvious until we’ve passed the tipping point for mass adoption. Nevertheless, the goals remain very clear.

All users must control their own data. At no point must the Internet depend on architectural weak points such as third parties where your data can be stored unencrypted, however temporarily, and attract hackers. And each individual must have the right to choose to use his or her data in apps as they see fit. Data must be transferable and no longer should it be locked up permanently feeding the commercial models of a massive social media advertising platform.

It’s a new world. A paradigm shift which requires users to participate — but also one in which computers that aren’t being fully utilised today can be set to work in a far more efficient and equitable way.

Data Wars: A New Hope

Back in 1997, people still viewed the World Wide Web as the Wild West. Unkempt, lawless and close-to-impossible for the average user to traverse. In the years that have followed, the openness that seemed so intimidating to many in the early days has proved to be crucial — the feature, rather than a bug. It’s precisely because of this permissionless architecture that we are now experiencing arguably the greatest acceleration of information and value exchange in the era of modern civilisation. And throughout history, we’ve learned one lesson time and again: free thought and innovative thinking dies when we are forced to rely on central institutions whose sole purpose for existence is to roll out a plan for all our futures — our interactions, our experiences…in other words, what we are allowed to do.

Together we’re moving towards a world in which security must be built in from the lowest level, with all data encrypted by default before it is stored anywhere online. We’re in the early days. But the way in which we communicate around the world needs to change radically.

The next age of the Internet is nearly here. As the old saying goes, if you want to start getting involved, the best time to get involved was a couple of years ago. But the second best time is today.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there.