Over the past 20 years, our use of the internet has evolved into something truly extraordinary. The worlds of commerce, communication and entertainment have undergone radical changes, which society has embraced with near universal enthusiasm.
But a growing number of people are becoming unhappy about the structures supporting that online activity, which are controlled by a small number of powerful companies, including Amazon, Google, Apple and Meta. They’ve become the gatekeepers of nearly all our digital information, and it’s almost impossible to participate in online life without becoming a customer of theirs. This, some believe, is deeply problematic.
In recent years, a small number of whistleblowers and former employees have gone public to express concern about this concentration of corporate power, but on Saturday, former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey became the most significant. Over a number of Twitter posts he expressed a nostalgic fondness for the internet of the 1990s, including “usenet, IRC, the web, even email…". But, he said, "centralising discovery and identity into corporations really damaged the internet. I realise I'm partially to blame, and regret it”.
His subsequent replies to tweeted questions indicated that he’s now trying to undo some of that damage by advocating for a “decentralised” internet where power is transferred from corporations and back to the people using it.
Ironically, the internet was conceived of as a decentralised entity; resilient, independent and built on protocols overseen by the internet community. The World Wide Web, which became the internet’s predominant platform, had a similarly egalitarian ethos: anyone could buy a domain name and publish content online for anyone else to read.
While that’s still the case, and the global domain name system is still decentralised and operated on a non-profit basis, a shift began to occur around 2005 as companies vied to make the internet easier to use. Email became centralised in services such as Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail. Blogging platforms sewed up the world of self-publishing, and hot on their heels came social media, providing a convenient outlet for all our photos, videos and messages of varying lengths. As companies were acquired or merged, they made promises to connect us in a kind of digital utopia.
We eagerly took them up on their offer, but it came at a cost. “Back when the internet was young, I personally never thought it would work this way, but in today’s world many of the most successful businesses on the internet make their revenue not from their users, but from advertisers,” computer scientist Stephen Wolfram wrote in a blog post, also noting that their activities are optimised to maximise advertising revenue.
In his tweets at the weekend, Dorsey echoed this. “There were less technology options around making money,” he wrote. “It led to advertising dominating.” The consequences of that were profound; our personal data was harvested in huge quantities to make advertising more effective, and the automated systems that choose the content we see began to prioritise the lurid and the sensational.
It’s highly unlikely that the world’s biggest internet providers wanted to design platforms that became vectors for misinformation and conspiracy theory. Nor do they enjoy having to make decisions about what constitutes appropriate content, which users to ban, or even taking responsibility for the safety of the data we have given them for free. But that’s what the centralised internet has required them to do.
Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, maker of the Firefox web browser, put it this way in his organisation’s Internet Health Report, written in 2019: “While these companies provide hugely valuable services to billions of people, they are also consolidating control over human communication and wealth at a level never before seen in history.”
The answer, according to Dorsey and others, including the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is decentralisation. But what does that mean?
“A web [designed] so that no individual, state, or corporation can substantially control its use,” said Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation when surveyed by Syracuse University. Primavera de Filippi, at the French National Centre of Scientific Research, also said it would allow “a decentralised discovery of content, enabling people to explore the World Wide Web according to their own system of values”. Structurally, it might be seen as an extension of the cloud, where information would be stored and distributed across billions of internet-connected devices with no reliance on intermediaries. An opening of standards could mean that closed platforms (such as video chat systems) would become interoperable.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” noted Dorsey in December 2019 when he first announced his interest in this. “It will take many years to develop a sound, scalable, and usable standard.”
There are huge challenges aside from the merely technical, however. How might people who are deeply attached to existing social media platforms be persuaded that there is a better way? How might such an enterprise succeed if it’s competing against firms pumping billions of dollars into research and development? And even if it did succeed, how could it hope to tackle the problem of illegal and harmful content, which many believe would flourish on a platform with no accountable oversight?
Dorsey, whose Twitter biography currently reads “romantic moron, 1/8th hippie”, has an unsurprisingly utopian view of his decentralised dream. “Our goal is to … ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding and a more peaceful existence on Earth.”
More pragmatic observers might see it as being faced with two equally unappealing options: an internet defined by corporate greed, or a libertarian playground where cybercrime runs rampant.