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Two years ago, the English computer scientist credited with conjuring the world wide web, wrote an article addressing three online trends which had him increasingly worried. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s complaints were hardly original – indeed they had already been expressed by other netizens – but the internet’s founding father crystallizing the web’s ability to undermine democracy and endanger society resonated with readers.
The article was something of a rallying cry, as Berners-Lee called upon people to tackle these trends “in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity.” The issues he cited concerned our loss of control when it comes to personal data; the ease with which misinformation proliferates online; and the need for transparency and understanding in political advertising.
Taking back control
The piece struck a determinedly somber note, and points one and three (data loss and political advertising) gained greater attention the following year when the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light. The harvesting of tens of millions of Facebook users’ data for political advertising purposes caused widespread outrage, with Facebook bearing the brunt as $119 billion was wiped off its market value.
Unsurprisingly, debates about data privacy have continued to rage ever since, and Lee’s subsequent Contract for the Web campaign called upon governments, companies, and citizens to commit to principles that ensured the web respects consumers’ privacy and supports ‘the best in humanity.’
Two years on, and while it would be stretching the truth to claim this problem has been solved, at least we now have the tools at our disposal to fight back. Users concerned about data harvesting, for example, can choose to surf the web using pro-privacy browser Brave. At the time of writing, almost 8 million monthly active users do just that. This figure is a drop in the ocean, to be sure, but Brave’s hockey stick growth will only accelerate as data breaches proliferate.
Brave addresses the surreptitious violation of user privacy by megaliths such as Google by blocking ads and trackers and replacing them with a blockchain system which remunerates users in Basic Attention Tokens (BAT). Essentially, users are paid for watching ads on the Brave browser, while publishers receive BAT based on user attention. Naturally, Brave users can also opt-out of watching ads altogether.
By disrupting the advertising monopolies of companies at the center of data abuses, Brave hopes to make advertising work for consumers and companies alike. And by imposing strict restrictions on the data sites can gather via cookies and scripts, the browser keeps your data footprint to a minimum.
Tackling the scourge of fake news
What to say about concern #2 – the dissemination of fake news? In fact, this phenomenon is closely linked to data exploitation, since it was privacy violations that enabled the creation of profiles which were then used to target voters with questionable content (propaganda in some cases) that jived with their predispositions and biases.
Of course, fake news is not the only problem, because technological advances have made it possible to fake other things, thereby undermining trust in the internet more generally: consider deepfake videos, whereupon anonymous creators can dupe viewers into believing they are watching something that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to predict how this technology could be mobilized in future election campaigns, with altered messages inserted into old speeches and interviews. Such videos can spread like wildfire in social media’s outrage-fueled echo chambers. Although pornography appears to account for the vast majority of deepfakes at present, President Trump has already eagerly chomped a dangled carrot, posting a phony clip of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her way through a speech.
Again, there is a solution to the threat of “repackaged” or maliciously modified content: upload original content to the Permaweb, a decentralized version of the internet created by Arweave. Just as videos can be manipulated by bad actors, stories can be rehashed and commoditized to reflect favorably on a certain party. This is precisely what happened when the Sputnik publication attempted to erase its original coverage of the Kerch incident, which presented Ukraine’s version of events.
Less than an hour after publication, a decidedly pro-Russia story replaced the original. Thanks to the Permaweb user who archived the webpage, a permanent copy of the article was stored unalterably, as all other web pages archived on the Permaweb. This story might as well be engraved on a stone tablet: it stands as a testament to the dangers of disinformation.
Of course, the Permaweb does not undermine fake news which is false right out of the gate. It will be an ongoing battle to identify, track and undermine spurious content, and social media companies have rather clumsily wrestled with this problem by resorting to questionable interventions and provoking condemnation from free-speech absolutists. One idea touted by tech inventor George Krasadakis is a Fake News Evaluation Network, an immutable registry powered by the blockchain.
The New York Times’ Research and Development team are already utilizing Hyperledger Fabric’s permissionless blockchain to authenticate news photographs, in an attempt to combat misinformation and adulterated media, so the precedent has already been set. We are bound to see more novel solutions come to light in the years to come.
Finding transparency in political ads
Is there a tech solution that can guarantee the transparency of political ads? Such adverts, which draw upon sophisticated data science and ever-improving algorithms, have directly targeted users in two of the biggest elections of our time: the EU referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.
Berners-Lee noted in his 2017 article that his Web Foundation team aims to tackle the issue of transparency, as well as the others he highlighted, as part of a five-year strategy. In the meantime, Facebook has taken steps to clean up its act (or to be seen doing so) in terms of political transparency in the UK, introducing new tools including a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer that requires advertisers to accurately represent who is running an ad.
The social media giant also promises to archive political ads for seven years and publishes a weekly report revealing top spenders across its platform. Of course, there is nothing to stop a political entity paying a ‘frontman’ to run ads on its behalf…
Another initiative seeking to introduce much-needed transparency to political ads is the Digital Advertising Alliance, an independent enforcement program jointly run by the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC) of the Council of Better Business Bureau (CBBB) and Association of National Advertisers (ANA). Whether this small army of acronyms can affect meaningful change and increase the integrity of political ads, however, remains to be seen.
Although we cannot yet say that the internet is perfect (and truthfully, would we ever want to?), the matters which troubled Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2017 might no longer be keeping him up at night. With privacy and veracity-preserving tools like Brave and Arweave, plus an array of Web3 technologies that place data sovereignty in the hands of its rightful owners, blockchain technology is proving itself to be incredibly useful for all manner of applications.
It is this technology that stands the best chance of paving the way to an internet that works as originally intended. One that won’t be casually mobilized to serve corporate and political interests, with netizens used as mere pawns in the information war.