When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, it served as a means of sharing, updating, and managing research-oriented information among scientists. Today, the internet has not only become the standard repository for all knowledge but also the prevailing platform through which all sorts of communications transpire. As 18th century Industrial Revolution helped transform manufacturing processes to shape the course of the world for the next centuries, the Internet Revolution, in its three decades of implementation, has already led us well into the digital age.
However, what was once thought to be a neutral playground is now being exploited by governments and large tech companies. Tech giants such as Facebook and Google, thanks to the vast amount of apps and services that they own (YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram), have direct influence over nearly three-quarters of all internet traffic today. On the other hand, the Chinese government has censored online information and has restricted several prevalent websites from being accessed. The current state of the web is not what the founders, including Berners-Lee, would have imagined.
According to Berners-Lee, the first step to reform the internet would be to completely alter the data-gathering business models of Facebook and Google, one where users hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. He has been working for several years with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop an open-source project called Solid. While applications and services developed through Solid will possess similar functionalities as widespread apps and services today, the data that passes through them will be under the control of the user at all time.
The necessary infrastructure to support Solid would be provided by his new company called Inrupt. In a blog post on Inrupt’s website, Berners-Lee mentioned that the decentralized platform of Solid is crucial to wrest power away from Internet giants. “People want to have a web they can trust. People want apps that help them do what they want and need to do – without spying on them,” he wrote. He stands strong with the notion that people would prefer apps and services that don’t have an ulterior motive. However, building the new Solid platform, driving people to adopt it, and ensuring any sort of impact; these would require a huge and monumental effort. He believes it’s possible though, writing, “Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible – and necessary.”
Another darling of the free internet world, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, was recently ranked among the 100 most influential people in the UK Technological Sector. In an interview with Business Insider, he mentioned that if he was given absolute power, he would destroy China’s Internet Censorship laws. “I would just stick the US First Amendment into the Chinese system and require that it be enforced appropriately”, he said, adding, “In terms of a realistic dream, to say any time you are going to block a website, there needs to be a true process of independent judicial review.”
After being forced to quit China in 2010, Google has since focused on launching a censored search engine in the country. Such measures go against Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra and has resulted in more than a couple employees quitting their jobs. Instead of modifying their point-of-view to fit the demands of a nation, Google should instead thrive to curb unwarranted censorship laws. Such drives, along with radical data protection facilities, can help in redefining the rules of the internet in the future.