5 June 2020

The battle for the future of the internet needs you

By Alex Krasodomski-Jones

At 6:48 AM on Sunday, Dallas Police asked Twitter users to send them any videos they had of US protesters acting illegally. A day later, their video service was down after tens of thousands of Korean pop music enthusiasts had uploaded hours of KPop music videos to the platform in protest, crashing its server.

This is the web we have. But is it the web we want?

What the internet looks like tends to be discussed when things go wrong. We may occasionally marvel at how quickly we can be thrown into a demonstration through social media, or cheat on an online pub quiz, but for the most part it’s online abuse, COVID misinformation, mob justice, harassment, lies – or whatever shocking content Facebook or Twitter or Google’s algorithm has chosen to send our way. We’re good at spotting what we don’t like. 

We’re not so good at articulating what we do like. Over the past 20 years or so the web has changed beyond recognition. For us in the UK, this has mostly been driven by the rise of mega-corporations like Amazon, Google and Facebook who have rationalised the internet into walled gardens and shopping centres. Our shopping habits, the media we consume, the way we work and learn about the world: all these norms have been profoundly changed by these companies.

As members of a liberal democracy we have got used to an internet that more-or-less does what we want it to. It more-or-less grants us the freedoms we expect. It more-or-less makes us feel like we are living our online lives like we live our offline ones, even if we’re not quite sure whether it is really what we want. 

But other versions of the web are growing in strength, as other nations shape their own internets. And their ambitions do not stop at their borders. For while the Great Firewall of China might feel like a long way from home, it is establishing a cultural norm, a competing version of the web, as well as shaping the conditions under which other technologies are developed – technologies that we in the West adopt, often unthinkingly. We’re on the front lines of an international cyber struggle that could set a new cultural consensus, shaping how we think about regulation and censorship and free speech.

The Chinese vision for the internet, for example, is one that sustains authoritarian rule. It is an extension of the state’s power, a tool to monitor and suppress dissent. It has no regard for freedom of expression or privacy: coming soon to a Chinese-made app near you, such as, say, Tik Tok. This vision rides on the back of multi-billion pound infrastructure programs and the threat of superior AI businesses and technologies. A population without rights to privacy online are easily farmed and fed into the training sets that power sophisticated artificial intelligences. This is important: techno-authoritarianism often wears a mask of efficiency, convenience and user experience. It’s commonly noted that WeChat, a ‘does-it-all’ app that is hugely popular in China and increasingly among diaspora communities, is an absolutely fantastic product. All it costs you is your fundamental rights.

That said, defenders of fundamental rights are few and far between online. Silicon Valley’s internet is a techno-utopian, try-and-try-again power grab, entrenching control of our online spaces in the hands of a tiny, monopolistic, technologically-savvy elite. It is Facebook, not national governments, that now sets the norms and rules around how we can behave and what we can say in the largest public space in history. It is Twitter – another advertising company – that is in the unenviable position of having to decide whether or not to allow the US President to speak to 80 million people.

There are many other visions for the web. A market-driven internet where regulation is anathema is the touchstone of many Republicans in DC, where Wall Street prays that the market will deal with online abuse and racism. Moscow’s vision for the web must be a strange paradox: closed and controlled at a national level, but internationally a battleground, allowing them to continue to advance their international ambitions. Russia, like China, is famous for allegedly stamping down on critics of the regime, both through surveillance and through a smog of paid-for opposition. Manufacturing vocal support for a regime and vocal opposition to its enemies, home and abroad, has never been cheaper and never been easier.

It isn’t just states and corporations. Deep in some commune, crypto-anarchists peddle a web outside of any kind of state or corporate control: encrypted, immune to the “weary giants of flesh and steel”. For proponents of this web, technology should replace trust, cryptocurrencies should replace banks, and the two combined should replace the state. We can vote, sign contracts and get married on the blockchain. In states where corruption is rife, or where voters have lost faith in the institutions of government, this is a seductive proposition.

For the most part, liberal democracies have lagged behind in articulating their own vision. While authoritarian powers are increasingly coherent in promoting their models, democracies are fractured, with fundamental differences in approach in North America, Europe and Asia. Now, more than ever, we need a vehicle to unite liberal democracies in advancing and advocating their own vision of the web, one in which our shared underlying values and interests are articulated. This moment represents a fantastic opportunity for the UK to work with our allies and set the international agenda, adding further flesh to the bones of ‘Global Britain’. 

It is against this backdrop that we at Demos have launched the Good Web Project. We aim to bring together government and the public, industry and expertise, to help shape and fight for a web that is compatible with the values of liberal democracy. Without evidence for what works online, and without a principled vision for the internet, our democratic traditions, government and society will fall behind authoritarian states and technopolistic industry giants in the race to reshape the most important international political, cultural and social space in existence.

We must not focus on what we don’t want, and forget about what we do.

If you would like to help, or be involved, we’d love to hear from you. You can find me through the links above or at alex.krasodomski@demos.co.uk.

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Alex Krasodomski-Jones is director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.