Despite the growing loss of personal privacy on the world wide web, a number of idealists are fighting against the trend. (Click) They are trying to give users command over their personal data. In India, “ a group of activists successfully blocked Facebook from implementing a new service that would have effectively controlled access to the web for huge swaths of the country’s population.” (“I was Devastated,” by Katrina Brooker, Vanity Fair, August, pg. 66.) In Germany, a young coder has built a decentralized version of Twitter. And In France, a like-minded group decentralize YouTube. (Ibid pg. 66.)
To help me understand what’s going on in the virtual world, I imagine the internet as railway track. The web is the train that rides upon it, permitting an infinite number of boxcars with goods to reach limitless destinations. Some boxcars hold commercial products. Others don’t. Facebook is a commercial boxcar. It lives by its advertising. Wikipedia doesn’t. (Click – See “Status”) To ride its boxcar a user doesn’t need a password. Nor will he or she be tracked by permanent “cookies.” (Click)
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who developed the web, created it as an open system, like Wikipedia. That’s why he gave the key to the train station to everyone. Unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate the robber barons. Government and commercial enterprises carved out large pieces of the web for themselves and required people to relinquish personal information if they wanted to enter the site. That information became a commodity that could be sold to interested parties.
Each time users sign a site agreement, they allow themselves to be treated as a commodity. The more they reveal, the more information there is to sell. That’s why sites are becoming increasingly invasive. Google and Amazon, for example, “have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen to mood shifts and emotions in human voices.” (Ibid, pg. 64.)
Berners-Lee’s dream of universal connection threatens to become a Orwellian world of corporate greed and government surveillance. (Click) At the moment, the public views this surveillance as a mixed bag: privacy versus convenience. (Click) They may want to keep their information to themselves, but they also want the ease the net provides: a place where they can shop, listen to the news, manage their bank accounts, and keep track of their families, for example. Unfortunately, the convenience is addictive and web designers work to make it so. (Click)
Berners-Lee sees the Pandora’s box he has opened and, together with others, is working toward web decentralization. The path will be long and thorny. Governments and corporations have much to lose. If the rebels hope to win, the public must be on their side. Already the surveillance network draws tighter. Money and information is pooling in the hands of a few. That won’t be good for everyone else.
This summer, web activist who want an open web will hold their second Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco. Berners-Lee will probably be among them. I hope the rest of us will cheer them on. Like Neil Armstrong, earth’s first space walker, (Click) these intrepid few have entered a brave new where they hope to take “one giant leap for mankind”