The social contract of the internet is under threat. That’s a problem

Digital freedom
5 mins
Contract with an X over it.

In the age of big tech, a small number of platforms have a leviathanic reach across the interwebs. We might be forgiven for thinking that this is the way things were meant to be.

But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The founding father of the modern web, Tim Berners-Lee, the same man credited with encouraging the development of HTML, URLs, and HTTP, lobbied hard to ensure that the internet would remain open source and royalty free.

His World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is dedicated to fostering an open and unharnessed web and strives to develop decentralized, universal standards that can help the internet scale to different parts of the globe.

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Other cyberactivists have tried to steer the internet in this direction, too. The “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” a paper written by John Perry Barlow in 1996, was a nod to these aspirations, of an internet free of restrictions imposed by governments or other external forces.

“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us,” he wrote. “You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

What went wrong?

Fast forward roughly 25 years, and the internet as we see today is a far cry from the ideals of Berners-Lee and Barlow—definitely no longer the libertarian haven that its original founders wanted it to be.

Berners-Lee, speaking at an event that marked the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, stated unequivocally: “You should have complete control of your data. It’s not oil. It’s not a commodity.”

The internet today is predicated on invasiveness, data mining, and an utter lack of privacy. Every time you use search engines or social media, your personal browsing data is spied on and kept aside to use in the future, either for ad tracking or similar nefarious purposes.

Facebook’s tracking you even when you’re not using the platform. Google is likely hoarding your medical files without your knowledge. Your political views are being manipulated by misleading or fake news. And if the algorithms determine that you’re the wrong ethnic group, you might be excluded from the best financial deals.

Far from becoming a common good used for the betterment of humanity, the internet has morphed into a dystopian nightmare with privacy an unattainable pipe dream.

The top five richest companies in the world by market capitalization are all technology firms: Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook. In 2004, only one of the top five was a tech company. All of them rely on data tracking and advertising for some of their revenue, with Alphabet and Facebook arguably the most reliant.

Of course, the proliferation of web-based services is something to celebrate, because they allow communication and knowledge to reach across geographical boundaries. But this most positive aspect about the internet is changing.

In the past month alone we’ve seen the U.S. make moves toward banning TikTok and WeChat, while India banned more than two dozen apps, with more likely to follow. If passed, the EARN IT bill may severely impact the operations of tech companies in the U.S., with global ramifications.

Privacy for the rich

Business models that trade privacy in exchange for free services certainly don’t help the cause. Cheap Android phones are the only way hundreds of millions of people can get online, but their privacy drawbacks are well known. Google search, Gmail, and Maps are free, but be prepared to fork over your digital footprint.

Sure, if you can afford it then buy the 1,000 USD iPhone. It’s more secure and private than the alternatives. But not everyone has the luxury to make this decision: 1,000 USD is more than two months of salary for the average Indian, for instance.

The internet wasn’t meant to serve only the interests of the rich. Berners-Lee waived his right to a royalty for a reason. But now there’s a trade-off: Pay for an app and enjoy its privacy features, or download free apps and let the developers track your activity. It’s your choice. This choice will further drive the wedge between the haves and the have-nots, and not act as the great leveller that the internet was meant to be.

The capitulation of the internet

Another troubling thought is the increasing likelihood of the internet fragmenting into multiple regional internets. And while these regional internets may be able to communicate with each other for now, that’s not a guarantee in the future, given how rapidly things are unraveling.

Such restricted, walled-off versions of the internet shall be governed by the whims of the few who preside over them. The open, decentralized internet as idealized by its founders will be no more. Free speech will be the first casualty, followed by knowledge and education, the remote and freelance economy, with a final death knell for innovation and collaboration.

“The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time,” wrote Berners-Lee in his open letter on the 30th anniversary of the web. “Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.”

The balkanization of the internet serves no one, least of all its users. Part of the reason that the internet has been such a transformative invention for the market economy is down to its ability to drastically reduce the costs of acquiring, sharing, and redistributing information.

The internet has created markets where none existed, such as e-commerce sites for rural artisans in developing countries. By significantly reducing search and information costs, the internet fosters inclusion, interaction, and social impact. It lowers the digital divide and boosts productivity.

Without a global internet, the world as a whole would be poorer and worse off than before. No cross-border Zoom calls. The end of global e-commerce. Limited ability to access knowledge databases from around the world.

That’s a future we should all be extremely worried about.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.