Sir Tim Berners Lee, the father of the world wide web, had an important message on the 29th anniversary of his creation: The threats to the web today are real. In an open letter, Berners Lee laid out the challenges the internet faces as it becomes more important to human life and society.
And those threats apply to most people who are connected to the internet—and a lot of those who aren’t. And while Berners Lee focuses on the web and online services, the threats he speaks of can easily be propagated beyond our browsers and mobile screens to other areas of the tech industry and affect humanity in more subtle and critical ways.
Berners Lee has always been an advocate of giving equal access to the internet connectivity. Today, the web has become a crucial commodity, just like water and electricity, a human right that we must protect across the world. But we must also look at other technologies that are gaining an equally important and how unequal access to them will disrupt human life and society.
What’s wrong with the internet today?
At the beginning of his letter, Berners Lee points out that for the first time, we will cross the tipping point where more than half of the world’s population will be online.
But this achievement raises two important challenges. First, how do we connect the other half? And second, are we sure the current state of the web is what we truly need?
The first point is especially crucial because of the critical role the web plays in most of the important things we do. From education to employment, access to news and information, or even expressing your opinion and having your voice heard, having or not having an internet connection can make a huge difference. The expanding opportunities that internet connectivity provides is creating a widening gap between the connected and disconnected halves of Earth’s population as the former continues to move forward at an accelerating pace in different domains while the latter struggles to catch up with outdated technology.
The second point is equally important because the internet is no longer a democratic network owned collectively by its users. Presently, a few very large companies implicitly own the internet.
These are companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. In the past years, they’ve all manifested incompetence—or unwillingness—to let their products and platforms be used for evil purposes mostly because doing so would hurt their bottom line.
For instance, Facebook’s creators designed the platform’s news feed to maximize user engagement by displaying personalized content. This enables them to serve micro-targeted ads to their users, the main source of Facebook’s income. But the same tools have become the source of filter bubbles, propaganda and fake news. Now Facebook must make the hard decision of fixing the news feed at the expense of losing profit.
The problem, as Berners Lee rightly describes, is that “the responsibility—and sometimes burden—of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good.”
How does the problem apply to other areas of the tech industry?
Both the digital divide and centralization problems will become exacerbated as different tech trends gain traction and importance in our daily lives.
Artificial intelligence is a notable example in this regard. Machine learning and deep learning, the branches of AI that have risen in popularity in recent years, are transforming fields and industries such as healthcare, education and recruitment, making them increasingly efficient and less costly. Consider AI and deep learning as augmentation technologies that will turn us into super-humans that will surpass the limits of our mortal shells.
But here’s how it becomes problematic. Unequal access to AI-powered apps will further split the human population between the super-humans and the rest. This is a situation that will only grow worse as other technologies such as augmented and virtual reality continue to advance. AR in particular is becoming very prominent in the professional workplace and can possibly be one of the key factors in keeping humans competitive in the age of AI and automation. Does this mean that only those who have access to AR gear will be able to find employment in the future?
Another growing problem is the control that tech companies will find over the different aspects of human society, an issue that Berners Lee raised in his letter. The Frightful Five (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) already have too much sway over things we do online. And trends such as AI, AR/VR and the Internet of Things are enabling them to further expand their power and wealth. They have already made it hard for any new company or organization to enter their dominion by gathering more and more user data and acquiring scarcely available tech talent at prices that others can’t afford.
Will these tech companies eventually become the uncontested rulers of our planet? While we have yet to discover the answer to that question, Professor Yuval Harari’s keynote at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos shed light on what will happen if technology becomes too concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.
What’s the fix?
While many people acknowledge the problems of the tech industry, few have come up with implementable and durable solutions. Berners Lee suggest three measures. First, to “support policies and business models that expand access to the world’s poorest through public access solutions, such as community networks and public wifi initiatives.” This is a very crucial step, but one that faces challenges across the world. For instance, in the U.S., the ongoing debate over net neutrality is further complicating how people will be able to access different internet services.
In other areas across the world, government censorship and lack of appropriate infrastructure are causing problems. Some companies such as Google and Facebook have led initiatives to bring internet connectivity to the underserved areas of the world. Both are certainly companies that have the money and resources to lead such efforts. But the problem is that these projects would give Google and Facebook further power and influence over the internet experience of the people in the areas they cover.
Berners Lee also suggests a “A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions” to rein-in the power of large tech companies. This is certainly a necessary step, but again it might not be enough. Regulations vary from region to region, providing plenty of loopholes for tech companies to exploit.
The final part to Berners Lee’s solution is to get more people involved. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future,” he wrote in his letter to the public.
This is perhaps the most crucial step to fixing the woes of the internet and tech industry. As data scientist Doug Rose said in an interview with TechTalks last year, currently only engineers are involved in the development of crucial technologies that we use every day, and we need to involve anthropologist, lawyers, psychologists and other people from the human sciences in the process.
Also worth exploring are technologies that will help decentralize technologies such as AI to prevent large companies gaining too much control over users’ data. Blockchain, the distributed ledger that made its debut with cryptocurrencies, is one of the technologies that shows great promise. Blockchain can help create applications that don’t rely on centralized authorities, where every user has full control and ownership of their data and can be an active member of the ecosystem, sharing in the costs and profits.
After all, humans invented these technologies to serve all of humanity. And to make sure they serve their purpose, we have to give everyone equal share and access.