If the controversy surrounding Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter tells us anything, it’s that people — including those in government — don’t understand how the World Wide Web works.
We know that the algorithms Twitter uses to recommend content can direct people to promote extreme views, but what is considered extreme has changed since Musk’s takeover. Many of the things he considers freedom of speech were previously thought to be offensive, misogynistic, violent or harmful in many other ways.
Many countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand as the founder of Christchurch Call, are looking to Twitter and other platform providers to allow analysis of their algorithms and more transparency about their results for individuals and social media.
But what the Christchurch Call does not address is a far more important question that governments need to think about urgently. Is it right that the infrastructure to handle the speech and communication of citizens is in the hands of private and focused on the profit of international data governance?
Privately owned social media now plays a large part in important public debates that are vital to democracy. They have become the core of modern society, and as such should be considered an integral part of the public infrastructure.
But they are designed to collect and monetize people’s data. It’s time for governments to help their citizens take control of that data.
Read more: Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover disrupts Christchurch Call – NZ needs to rethink its digital strategy
The web is broken
The World Wide Web began as a global network with a set of open technical standards to make it easy to give someone from a remote computer (also known as a client) access to information on a computer controlled by another person (also known as a server).
Embedded in the Web standards is a system called hypertext, which means that the reader can choose to follow links, browsing the global network of information in a self-directed way.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, people built their own websites, manually authoring HTML pages and linking to content that other people had published. This was replaced by content management systems and – perhaps more importantly – blog software.
Blogs opened up published content to the masses, but it wasn’t until the advent of social media – commonly known as Web 2.0 – that literally anyone with internet access could become a content producer. And this is when the Web broke, more than 15 years ago. It has since been broken.
Read more: Is the global decline of democracy linked to social media? We gathered evidence to find out
Social media not only puts content beyond the control of those who created it, they also sit as a monolithic interface between the rest of the generation and the real Web. Gen Z has never experienced the decentralized nature of the technology that powers the apps they use.
Each social network instead tries to make the World Wide Web into just one application on one big server. This principle is true for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and all other social media applications.
The result is that platforms collect interactions to profile users and direct them to content through “recommendation” algorithms. This means that people can be directed to products they can buy, or their data and behavioral information can be sold to other businesses.
How to fix the internet
In response to the disruption of Musk’s Twitter acquisition we have seen governments and institutions set up their own servers to join the Mastodon microblogging system. These institutions can now verify the identity of the users they host and ensure that their content is within their terms and possible legal requirements.
However, taking back control of microposts is not enough to fix a broken Web. Social networks have made efforts in the past to centralize important functions such as payments and banking. And people are locked out of the forum without a legitimate reason to regain access.
Considering broad principles alone will not solve the problem in the long term and globally.
Instead, governments will need to assess which digital services and data currently hosted on social media are an integral part of modern democratic societies. Then, they will need to build a national data infrastructure that allows citizens to remain in control of their data, protected by their government.
Read more: People are leaving Twitter for Mastodon, but are they ready for democratic social media?
We can expect a new ecosystem of digital services to develop around those data infrastructures, but one that does not block certain people or make them a product of surveillance capitalism.
This is not a Utopian vision. The Flemish government in Belgium has announced the creation of a data processing company to facilitate a digital environmental system based on personal data. Citizens control these vaults and any digital services that need data to share with them if given permission (for example, public transport payment systems or content sharing systems like Twitter).
Various blockchain businesses want to make people believe that their technology enables the “Web3”, but the technology to realize this vision is already available and uses the actual standards of the World Wide Web. The web’s decentralized and open technology has been called Web 3.0 for almost 20 years now. They have grown into solid market-ready products for personal data vaults.
Governments must now create a technical back-end with regulatory oversight to ensure algorithmic transparency and reliable digital transactions. We need a rich data infrastructure, driven by companies that use data.
Technology and expertise are readily available, but we need to be more aware of what true technological decentralization means, and why it will protect citizens and democracy in the long run.