Mar 20, 2018
Cambridge Analytica is on the cover of every newspaper. The company managed to get hold of millions of data points of very sensitive data from Facebook users. Most reporters focus on the meaning of consent in the digital age and Facebook's inability to enforce it. Most reporters covering the Cambridge Analytica story are missing out on the big picture. The scale of the operation was only possible because Facebook has too much data about too many people. Cambridge Analytica is a cautionary tale about the risks of centralizing data and control over the flows of information. The internet and the web were designed to decentralize data and power. Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook is an example of what a system with a single point of failure leads to.
Many claim the internet is broken. As I've argued in these articles - here and here - these claims are often examples of misdirected anger. The social contract is broken. Inequality is rising, and the tensions associated with injustice are spilling into online space. Since the internet facilitates the collection of structured data and statistical analysis, it allows us to measure and reveal the overarching social tensions as never before. Media and unsavvy researchers often take a narrow focus that places the blame on the messenger, instead of talking about the broader problems that underpin the symptoms of the sick society their investigations reveal. Many claim the internet is broken... The social contract is broken.
The internet, with its capacity to facilitate communication, aggregate opinion, and coordinate by the thousands in real time, is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal to solve the social issues at hand. The internet has made it easier for women to coordinate around the #MeToo movement, as it has enabled the growth of Black Lives Matter, to mention two recent examples. Rape, misogyny and racially targeted police violence are not new issues, but the internet provided a platform for these covered-up conversations to take place.
From the development of written language to the printing press; from the telegraph to the web, accessing and sharing knowledge has fuelled humankind's progress and development. Much of what was considered revolutionary only decades ago is mistakenly taken for granted today.
The problem with misdirected anger is that it leads to misdirected policies that could undermine the internet's capacity to catalyze much-needed social change. We need to ensure that when we think about internet policy we think about it with a political lens: how can we ensure the internet will enable us as citizens to share ideas freely, coordinate around common interests, and act in defense of our rights and interests? How can we ensure that people are afforded these conversations as a right today and in the future? How can we ensure these protections even in scenarios where the powers-that-be feel profoundly challenged by people's capacity to coordinate? How can we ensure these protections even in scenarios where the powers-that-be feel profoundly challenged by people's capacity to coordinate?
If we accept that the internet has become a key tool for politics in this broad sense of the term, we can see the internet is indeed facing a problem. A problem that is often neglected for being less tangible, but that underlies much of what concerns the public about the internet. A problem that not only reflects but can reinforce current social problems, and frustrate the goal of ensuring meaningful political participation: centralization.
Centralization and decentralization
Centralization is the process through which intermediaries have reshaped the internet and the web, placing themselves as gatekeepers of information. In the context of an increasingly centralized web the ethos of "move fast and break things" that promoted and spurred bold innovations a decade ago has become deeply problematic. Each 'mistake' on the centralized internet of today causes harm to thousands if not millions. And technological developments are increasing the powers intermediation affords the corporations that now employ what used to be a crowd of free-coders.
We the people cannot afford the risks this entails to the internet of tomorrow, and its ability to deliver social change. Decentralization is about creating architectural barricades to this process so that power remains distributed across the network.
The battle for the net takes place today and everyday. There are no straightforward solutions. Every turn implies hard choices. It is therefore time to involve as many people as possible in this process about thinking about solutions. Unsurprisingly, we need to be aware not only of the power these intermediaries exercise over politics, academia, and the private sector, but how delving into certain of these topics havs become interestingly and unacceptably taboo. Decentralization is about creating architectural barricades to this process so that power remains distributed across the network.
If we hope to protect the citizens of tomorrow from expected and unexpected scenarios we need to get creative and bold today. And we need the mass of netizens on board. We need open and robust debates. We cannot afford anything less than this. Too much is at stake.
If the reason for much of the misdirected anger is that the centralization process is less tangible than the symptoms it might trigger, perhaps a first step must be to make this underlying layer more visible and part of our public discourse.
The closed environments in which technology is being developed by private companies, and its metaphors - such as "the Cloud"- which have been used to over-simplify the internet's architecture, have done nothing but obscure the key political battleground of this century. The intermediaries have the upper hand unless we can shed some light over this structure.
The Neutrality Pyramid
The pyramid below has the humble purpose of re-stating the physical existence of intermediaries, and their power. It shows some of the distinctive layers in which gatekeeping is being exercised today, and which could affect users' ability to share ideas and produce meaningful change tomorrow.
The pyramidal structure suggests that, from a user perspective, different actors exercise various types of control over our ability to deliver a message. Re-aligning incentives for these intermediaries to work in favour of society's goals might require developing a multi-pronged strategy, with tailored and targeted approaches for each level of the pyramid.
If an ISP decides that no data packets containing certain keywords should be delivered, then it doesn't matter what device we have, or what platform we rely on: the message will not be delivered. If a device does not allow the use of certain apps, then certain tools may become unavailable, and so on. The lower an actor is placed on the pyramid, the greater the risk that they pose to the open internet and the open web as tools for social change.
- Seeing the pyramid: As users and responsible consumers we need to be aware of exactly who each of these intermediaries are and how they manage their role as intermediaries. If they do not respect our rights, we should shift to more decent providers or services.
- Observing behaviors within each layer: As a community we need to promote enforceable rules to ensure that each level of the pyramid will be kept from abusing its intermediary powers. Public committees should be set up to assess the degree of horizontal integration and its impact on innovation and competition. Control over personal data and public discourse is increasingly in the hands of a few private companies, and this tendency unchecked leads towards an even bleaker future.
- Observing dynamics between layers: As a community we need to ensure each intermediary stays within its segment of the pyramid, ruling out any further vertical integration, and promoting the re-fragmentation of companies that have integrated across these layers over the past decades. Public committees should be set up to assess the degree of horizontal integration and its impact on innovation and competition.
This is not a new fight. A handful of avant-garde activists and innovators are already onto it. But it is ultimately up to us (the mass of citizens, users, and consumers) to signal to representatives and markets alike that we want change.
Personal control over personal data
On the one hand, new blockchain-based platforms like Filecoin, Sia, Storj and MaidSafe seek to decentralize data storage by offering crypto-coins for players who put their latent storage capacity on the market. On the other hand, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is developing Solid (Social Linked Data), through which he seeks to complete the original web ideal by decoupling data from the applications that silo it today. Data will be owned and stored by the people, and applications will compete on how they visualize the data, and enhance user experience. An effective implementation would automatically create cross-platform interoperability, making platform neutrality less of a problem.
Think about how you can send emails from a Gmail account to an Outlook one, but you can't tweet to a Facebook user. Silos are socially inefficient but continue to exist because they allow big companies to ensure we don't leave their walled gardens. You social graph should be yours to keep.
Last year the EU fined Google for giving unfair and prominent placement of their own comparison shopping services. India has recently followed this decision, and fined Google based on the same behaviour.
Whereas in Russia Android was fined for continuing to pre-install its associated Google Apps, in 2014 South Korea ruled pre-installed apps should be removable, and the EU started studying the effects of pre-installed apps in 2016.
More recently, a Member of the Italian Parliament, Stefano Quintarelli, has been promoting a bill since 2015 that would grant users the right to use any software they like, from sources other than the official - vertically integrated - store. Now the French telecom regulator seems to be picking up that idea as well.
Perhaps the most well known of all the layers of the pyramid. Regulators in India, EU and elsewhere have effectively pushed against the pressure exerted by ISPs to keep the owners of the infrastructure from discriminating between the content that travels through the network. As the basis of the pyramid, failure to ensure neutrality of the net would arguably collapse the rest of the layers.
Silos are socially inefficient but continue to exist because they allow big companies to ensure we don't leave their walled gardens.
The battle to ensure the internet remains a tool for citizens to create a more just society will be our constant companion throughout the next decade. The battle is uphill. With each day that goes by without a thorough debate on our rights, the odds of winning the battle get slimmer.
The sketch outlined here, and elsewhere this series, suggests difficult trade-offs. Many questions remain. Yet we should not feel paralyzed by the grave asymmetry of information between us and the intermediaries. Intermediaries rely on the opacity of their systems strategically, and continuously leverage it, to stall conversations about the risk they represent to us and our political system. I hope these pieces illuminate a space around which we can gather and think out loud.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.
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