What could a new internet be like?

27th January 2021

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is looking to reboot the internet. His new start up, Inrupt, plans to use open-source software to create a single sign-on system, where personal data is stored in pods, instead of being captured and sold by corporations.

He’s highly critical of companies like Google and Facebook, who essentially act as surveillance platforms with social features.

User control is the main focus of his new project: you would be in charge of your data, able to access it, understand it, and control what happens to it.

He’s already got the BBC and the NHS signed up, so we might soon see more institutions joining the father of the internet’s ‘do-over.’

While turning it off and on again is a tried and tested solution to most tech problems, the internet poses a more difficult conundrum. Is it bad? Does it actually need fixing?

The internet has revolutionised virtually every aspect of human life. It has changed the way we work, the way we communicate, how we access information, and even how we relate to and understand each other.

It has brought millions of people together, helped draw attention to charity drives, given virtually unlimited access to information, created highly engaged communities of fans, introduced people to new movies, songs, and art, and has even been a place for many people to find love.

The internet is also a reflection of the worst things that happen in humanity – fraud, bullying, child abuse, sexism, racism, and let’s not forget it was directly responsible for electing a fascist to the White House so, something has to change.

What the Internet was supposed to be like vs what it is now

When the internet was first launched in the late 80’s, it was envisioned as an egalitarian tool for sharing of information. With no central management or organisation, users would naturally gravitate to content that resonated with them, or that was shared across their network.

This was of course years before the concept of Facebook, but even at the very beginning of the internet it was designed to be a social tool.

When what we know think of as ‘the web’ was invented, it was designed by a small handful of people for what we would think of now as a very specific set of uses. If you didn’t want to read scientific papers, talk about Star Trek, or email, there basically wasn’t anything on the internet for you to actually do.

Compared to the internet today, with livestreaming, online dating, Youtube, news, entire worlds and communities created for online games, social media sites, influencers, virtual personalities, algorithms, virtual reality, and every TV show, movie, song, and book every made, the internet was pretty boring when it started.

Given the possibilities, it was always going to happen that the internet would become more than it’s creator ever imagined.

However, not all change has been positive. As we’ve seen over the last four years (and arguably for considerably longer depending where you went), the internet has become a key area in politics, the battleground for culture wars, and is now the fastest way for people to become extremists.

If we could remake the internet, knowing all that we do now, about how important data is and how it can be abused, about how people gather, interact, and communicate online, and how much power the internet came to have over our lives, what would we do differently?

What a rebooted internet should be like according to Eulogy

Content would be moderated, with clear terms of use and strict enforcement

The biggest change I’d make to the internet would be to moderate content and ban people who violate the terms of use.

Sites like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter have allowed extreme, hateful, and untrue content to be hosted and shared, and wildly promoted through their algorithms. Because the content is so divisive and incendiary, it gets huge amounts of engagement, and is then boosted higher in feeds and recommendations.

If you go on Youtube you’re only ever about four clicks away from the start of the far-right pipeline: a Jordan Peterson video leads to a Ben Shapiro video which leads to a Charlie Kirk video, who personally paid for busloads of terrorists to visit Capitol Hill. Even if you stop watching, just having clicked on these videos warps your recommended videos until there’s nothing left but hatred and comedians trying to stay relevant.

These sites are finally starting to take action against content like Qanon, but in my opinion it’s far too late. They’ve profited from creating environments where this type of content can flourish, and actively encouraged individuals to find each other, forming groups that have gone on to do real harm, and even kill people. Now that it’s taken root, it isn’t going to go away.

People are getting banned from Twitter, and crying out that their free speech is under attack, but it isn’t. They can say whatever they want, they just can’t say it there, because what they’re saying is terrible.

I would’ve been banning people from day one. Of course, it’s difficult to actually moderate and enforce content on sites like this, but the alternative is what got us to where we are today.

– Jack Terry, Content Manager

Brands could truly put their customers first by giving them control over their data

Brands have always adapted to new technology, but a rebooted internet could give brands an opportunity to change their approach to digital marketing.

Personalisation has been revolutionary for brands, being able to create carefully curated experiences for their audiences. However, this should not be to the detriment of those audiences’ privacy.

Cross-platform sharing of data obviously has its place, when conducted sensitively, providing useful information and offers. A new internet could be an opportunity to ensure the consumer is put first in this equation.

We need to find a new balance that doesn’t put the advertiser first and instead respects the consumer. By taking this approach, brands can begin to regain the trust of consumers.

– James Steward, Technology Director

Power and control could be decentralised, instead of reflecting existing power structures

The ownership, access, and distribution of our personal data has become of increasing concern with the huge growth and dominance of a small few in technology, who now wield significant power that can have a real impact on how our society functions.

What I find interesting is that this has come as a surprise to anyone. The world’s wealth and land is owned by less than 1% of the global population. The internet has simply begun to reflect the same social structures and distribution of wealth, political control and distribution of information.

Tim Berners-Lee is saddened by the reflection in the mirror and perhaps he should be. Maybe we all should be. But is the answer to create a new mirror? It won’t change who it is reflecting.

A new internet could be a fantastic chance for things to change in a real and meaningful way. But without major changes to who controls the flow of data, things aren’t likely to get better.

– Sara Beirne, Head of Media, Insight and Planning

Only time will tell if Berners-Lee will succeed in redoing the internet. If he does, it might be the most important technological development since its creation, and could have a huge impact on the way the world works – for the better. But only if we rethink how we use the internet, and commit to upholding the original ideals that shaped its creation.

Read more about developments in the world of tech and media on Eulogy’s blog.