From big companies to governments, the ability to censor what we do online is about to get a lot harder
We think of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as public utilities, a sort of digital commons. Partly because we’ve got used to it all being free, partly because it’s where the debates of the day are now publicly thrashed out. Social media is now part of our political and cultural furniture – exciting, raucous and noisy. Subsequently, we imagine it’s neutral and apolitical. Empty “platforms” to be filled with our clamourings.
This is nonsense, of course. Social media platforms are public in the same way that a shopping centre is. It looks and feels it until a security guard chucks you out for leaning over the railing, at which point you realise you’re on someone else’s private property. Take Facebook, with its 1.35bn monthly users. The company pays for and owns the hundreds of thousands of servers that host all of our inane content, not to mention the army of engineers and programmers required to keep the thing running. That’s why Facebook allows companies to target adverts at us based on the things we post – it means we don’t have to pay for it.
Then there’s all the social and legal responsibilities. All social networks have terms and conditions which forbid illegal, violent, threatening or abusive stuff. These reasonable requests are frequently ignored and so Google et al need to hire hundreds of “content managers” whose job it is to watch humanity’s bile ( according to a recent article in Wired, there are 100,000 of them, dotted around the world ) and remove it. Inevitably, this drags these usually American companies into uncomfortable decisions: should YouTube remove all Isil-related content? Should Twitter close down misogynistic accounts? Should Facebook proactively search out extremist material and pass it to the authorities, as the Intelligence and Security Committee has recently suggested? Important social questions, which are inevitably dealt with in the legal or policy department a company headquartered far away.
Because of the way the internet works, these companies also get to subtly influence what we encounter online: what we find, who we meet, and what we buy. Google’s search algorithm is increasingly personalised to your own search history, which means you end up finding stuff online it thinks you want. According to one recent study, if you tell your friends on Facebook you’ve voted, they are more 0.39 per cent more likely to vote too. Given that Facebook could decide through its newsfeed algorithm who gets to see your declaration of civic duty – that power could affect change the result of an election.
This is not the fault of these companies, who I think err on the side of free expression, and generally want to create a free, public service. But thanks to market forces and expediency the result is a public space that isn’t really controlled by the citizens. It’s curated, controlled, monetised, and censored, often from behind closed doors.
A growing number of people are bothered by this. According to a new survey of 3,000 Europeans released this week, just 3 per cent of respondents said they trust social networks with their data. The European Commission has woken up, and starting taking an interest in the power of the big tech companies by threatening to break up Google, imposing the ridiculous “right to be forgotten”, and is making noises about tougher data protection for citizens.
But technology is more typically changed by innovation than regulation. And among the hacker community an alternative way of running the internet is being built already: an internet where no one is in control, where no one can shut you down, where no one can manipulate your content. A decentralised internet.
It’s not a new idea. In the early 2000s there was a burst of activity in “peer-to-peer” software designed so people could communicate online directly without going via some internet company. But the web became centralised, Joss Wright, a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute explains, partly because it’s easier to build centralised systems, and partly because it was such a good place to advertise. As a result the personal data revenue model took off, which permitted large companies to pay for the infrastructure and server space to create attractive and functional services, which we all joined. And social media platforms rely on the network effect – everyone is on Facebook is because everyone else is – so the result was a centralisation of people, data, then power. A natural monopoly forms.
But this latest wave could be different, because of a neat but little known new technology. Back in 2009, in an obscure cryptography chatforum, a mysterious man called Satoshi Nakamoto invented the crypto-currency Bitcoin. You’ve probably heard of this digital cash because it was, and still is, the currency of choice on the illegal online drugs markets which are growing in popularity. It turns out the real genius of Bitcoin was not the currency at all, but the way it decentralises everything. Bitcoin works because it creates an immutable, unchangeable public copy of every transaction ever made by its users, which is hosted and verified by every computer that downloads the software. This is called the “block chain”. Pretty soon, enthusiasts figured out that this block chain could be used for anything.
This is the plan of a crack team of computer geeks currently trying to re-engineer the entire damn internet using the block chain. Armed with 30,000 Bitcoin (around $12 million dollars) of crowd funded support, the ” Ethereum ” project is 40 of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, based mainly in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. They are currently hard at work building a new programming language and platform that uses the block chain and applies it to anything on the internet (and should be released early next year). Vinay Gupta, a member of this team, explains that the current internet is layered with several piecemeal systems which have accreted over the years: the fact so much internet traffic goes via the US is because it was invented there; the certificate system which allows secure sites to be accessed is driven by the interests of a few large commercial browser companies, and so on. The end result, he says, is a hacked together network that is inefficient, insecure, and subject to invisible political expediency and control. Ethereum is a system that its developers hope will change all that, heralding a revolution in the way we use the net – allowing us to do everything online directly with each other, not through the big companies that currently mediate our online interaction and whom we have little choice but to trust with our data.
Already others have applied this principle to all sorts of areas. One clever chap built a domain name system that cannot be removed called Namecoin; another an untraceable email system call Bitmessage. Later this month Eris Industries, a company that specialises this type of thing, is being launched in London along with lots of smart tech. Perhaps the most interesting of all is a social media platform called Twister, which is a bit like Twitter but because it uses block chain technology, everything can be done anonymously, and censorship is close to impossible. No one can shut it down, because no one owns it. Miguel Freitas, the Brazilian who spent three months building this tells me he was sparked into action when he read David Cameron say he’d considered shutting down Twitter after the 2011 riots: “the internet alone won’t help information flow if all the power is in the hands of a few people”.
Because of its ubiquity, it’s easy to forget the internet has already changed shape several times. It started in the late sixties as a military project, morphed into an academic network through the eighties, was co-opted into a vehicle for commerce and business in the nineties, before being invaded by social media and user generated content which became dominated by a few large companies in the noughties. It’s about to change again. If and when it does, that change will be gradual but significant: chipping away at the dominance of the big companies that currently rule the roost, and making it far harder, if not impossible, to censor and control what’s online. Doubtless Isil propagandists will be rubbing their hands with this, but so will democratic revolutionaries in Russia. And for the rest of us, it will mean more control over our own data and digital footprints, a peer-to-peer network where no one is in charge – because everyone is.