We can soon see a new internet model challenging the cyber-monopoly
Who owns the internet? Well no one in particular – at least not all of it. That is not possible due to several complications – legal and logistical being the foremost of them. Yet there is control, and web-users are gradually waking up to the uneasy feeling that both their data and behaviour are increasingly being put to unintended use. And technology experts are advocating for a new internet model free of corporate control. Dfinity Foundation, a Zurich-based non-profit organisation hosted an online conference on June 30 this year, where scientists and investors discussed alternatives to the current model.
When the internet was taking shape in the early 1990s, thought leaders were thrilled by the possibility that it would be the largest experiment of democratisation of information in human history. What Gutenberg and his printing press had done to abolish the monopoly of the clergy and the aristocracy over knowledge, the internet was expected to do for the masses. Anyone who had access to connectivity and a terminal device could be privy to any information resource anywhere in the world – all at a minimum cost and at the twinkle of an eye. Its founding fathers hoped that the internet, not being restricted to the boundaries of any one nation, will not be subject to any regulatory bindings – either political or ideological. It would be free and open and only controlled by the users’ information demand-and-consumption behaviour.
We all know now that this utopian ideal never took off. Like any human endeavour, the internet fell prey to greed, power play and manipulation. First, the notion of free intellectual expression faced legal and ethical hurdles. Then hackers and manipulators exploited the advantages of online anonymity and remoteness to play with our security and trust. And finally, the pressures of crass monetization ripped apart any lingering hopes of stimulating intellectual exchanges among dispersed corners of the earth. The profit motive turned the internet into an all-pervasive marketplace where power and control assumed entirely different meanings. While political forces have long tried to exploit the internet to serve their purpose, the real control of the cyberspace now rests with a handful of the biggest corporate’s on earth – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Alibaba, eBay, PayPal,Baidu, or Tencent – companies holding an incredulous amount of human data and with infinite server space to store that data for eternity.
The issue is no longer about theoretical control. Absolute monopoly of these firms with similar business models and economic targets blockades the emergence of any new thoughts in the space of internet technology. This is a direct antithesis to the idea out of which these start-ups themselves were born. They were young rebels back then – lashing out at the restrictions of a still-nascent internet hierarchy. Now those rebels have prospered, mellowed, and set up their own hierarchy model. They would only patronize such technological innovation that helps sustain their dominance.
Another aspect of this problem is ideological – yet having grave bearings on society. Even if we set aside the abstract notion of a world of free thinkers, corporate supremacy, and the ad-tech industry that sustains them, is posing a clear and present danger to human values. In a world where deep learning algorithms could come up with doctored text as well as image, no one is now sure of the authenticity of online content. And evil forces are always on the lurk to exploit this weakness. Internet is still the best medium for instant and cheapest communication – and yet it is unfortunate that now we cannot trust the information it provides.
This is not only about malevolent content and wilfully false information, but also commercial push of information customised based on our online behaviour. This is one grey area with far-reaching impact and a source of severe debate on ethics and data privacy. With a few corporate giants dividing the cyber-pie among themselves, personal data and behaviour patterns of the whole of humanity is concentrated in their servers. None can hope to escape the online reach of these tech giants, and even if we want to, there are hardly any application or web service that are beyond their cyber-ecosystem.
This is just the story that Dfinity wants to rewrite. According to Dominic Williams, Dfinity’s founder and chief scientist: “We’re taking the internet back to a time when it provided this open environment for creativity and economic growth, a free market where services could connect on equal terms…. We want to give the internet its mojo back.”
To this end, Dfinity is already working to create a decentralised internet model that is not hosted on any one server. It follows the distributed architecture and the data is spread over a network of independent data centres. They have named this technology simply “internet computer” supported by a new protocol called the Internet Computer Protocol or ICP.
This can be path-breaking in many ways. But more about that in our next episode.
(To be concluded…)