It is my belief that the internet is broken. I'll explain why in a minute, but I was really pleased to see Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaking out on this subject once again at the weekend, because this is a debate that needs everyone involved.
The internet today is not the same as it was 20 plus years ago. It is far more influential and at the same time much more vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and attack. Ultimately it is my belief that we need some form of new social contract about the purpose and role the internet plays in our lives. However, rather than engage in a proper debate about how we fix it, the policy makers and regulators are simply trying to band-aid existing infrastructures.
In the spirit of The Cluetrain Manifesto and The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace we should be looking to create a new set of guiding principles. Today I'm seeking the power of the crowd to join in the debate and help to find solutions.
The power of the crowd: the problem
When Thomas Friedman wrote The World is Flat in 2000 it was hailed as one of the most influential assessments of the impending impact of the internet. However, while he suggested that flattening the world would create new opportunities for those who had previously had little or no chance of social mobility, he foresaw that it would also create unpleasant consequences for established economies, such as fierce competition for jobs and downward pressure on incomes.
Wind the clock forward to 2017 and we are witnessing both the positives and negatives described in The Flat World. Of course, if I were looking at this purely from a technology and entrepreneurial perspective I could argue it has created huge wealth, especially thanks to the first and second generation of internet companies, ranging from Amazon to Uber. Even so, the suggestion that technology, and more precisely the internet, has broken down barriers, redefined social norms for the better and created a more equal, fairer society would be an overstatement of the facts.
I would agree with Sir Tim that we must take back control of our data, because today the economics of the internet simply reinforces centralisation, both in terms of power and technology. Security experts widely agree that storing information on centralised servers creates honeypots for hackers and that is a bad thing. It also means a small handful of technology companies have all the power and control of the infrastructure we use. It is unhealthy to allow this oligarchy to control access to services and communications as we become unnecessarily dependent on them.
We must break away from this winner-takes-all model and the only sensible way I can see positive progression is by decentralising the Internet infrastructure. Only then will we be able to get back to the inclusive principles outlined in The Cluetrain Manifesto and The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.
Today I believe the very thing that was supposed to break down physical and virtual barriers has failed. Nearly 50 per cent of the global population is without effective access to the internet, never mind possessing the skills and education to exploit its potential. Indeed, economically the gap between the world's richest and everyone else has widened. These are not problems that an improved internet infrastructure can improve on its own, and while new technology was one of Sir Tim's suggested solutions, I would suggest that these new technologies must be more radical than any that has gone before to have any impact. In essence, we need to change the internet at its core, and we cannot rely on incumbents to start playing by new rules of their own accord.
Some commentators argue that traditional ‘command and control' companies are dead thanks to the internet, and it's true that it has turned business models upside down. At the same time, though, it has taken away many opportunities for those in established industries.
Politically everyone pointed to the Arab Spring as a sign of "hope" that instant, unfettered communication could lead to significant political and economic change. But others question whether we're now in a situation where (allegedly) student hackers in Macedonia can create a news agenda to decide a presidential election in return for a lucrative income from digital ad revenue. Meanwhile, cyber-spying is the latest fashion where any government with enough money can employ professional hackers to steal industrial secrets or bring down the national grid of a nation state they are not getting along with.
We should all be pretty disappointed with how the Internet has turned out and the effect it has had or not had on all our lives. Frankly, it is time, now that the internet is almost 30 years old, that we had a proper conversation about where we want it to go next. This cannot be solved by one stakeholder group alone - just look what happened when the UK government decided to introduce new cybersecurity legislation. The Investigatory Powers Bill was not drafted in partnership with technologists and I believe it will not be long before we see the fallout from this failure.
Sir Tim is right to say we need to establish common principles drawing on the expertise of all stakeholders. It must also be firmly grounded in open standards (something the World Wide Web Consortium has been instrumental in driving), open source to encourage widespread adoption and transparency while facilitating internet access for the vast cross-section of the world's population without access. Fundamentally the internet cannot carry on as it is, because we cannot protect data if it is travelling across an insecure and centralised infrastructure.
However, that also means we face difficult questions with no easy answers, but I'm confident that with the power of the crowd we can work through these issues toward a fairer and brighter future. I hope to return shortly with some possible answers.
Nick Lambert is COO of MaidSafe
This article is drawn from a blog that first appeared on the MaidSafe website