It's not just Twitter.  The whole internet is broken and we better fix it soon

It’s not just Twitter. The whole internet is broken and we better fix it soon

If the debate over Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter tells us anything, it’s that people – including those in governments – don’t understand how the World Wide Web works.

We know that the algorithms Twitter uses to recommend content can guide people to more extreme views, but what counts as extreme has changed since Musk’s takeover. Many of the things he considers free speech would previously have been considered derogatory, misogynistic, violent, or harmful in many other ways.

Many countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand as a co-initiator of the Christchurch Call, are turning to Twitter and other platform providers to enable analysis of their algorithms and more transparency about their effects on individuals and the social fabric.

But what the Christchurch Call fails to address is a much more fundamental issue that governments should urgently think about. Is it appropriate that the infrastructure to host citizen discourse and engagement be in the private, for-profit hands of multinational data monopolies?

Private social media platforms now host a significant portion of the important public debates essential to democracy. They have become the heart of the modern public sphere and as such they should be considered an essential part of the public infrastructure.

But they are set up to collect and monetize people’s data. It’s time for governments to help their citizens take back control of this data.

Read more: Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover disrupted Christchurch’s appeal – New Zealand needs to rethink its digital strategy

The web is broken

The World Wide Web began as a worldwide network with a set of open technical standards to allow someone easy access from a remote computer (also called a client) to information on a computer under someone’s control. another (also called the server).

A principle called hypertext is built into web standards, which means that the reader can choose to follow hyperlinks, navigating the global information network independently.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, people were creating their own websites, manually creating HTML pages, and linking to content that other people had posted. This has been replaced by content management systems and – perhaps more importantly – blogging software.

Blogging unlocked content publishing for the masses, but it wasn’t until social media platforms emerged – commonly referred to as Web 2.0 – that literally anyone with access to the internet was able to become a content producer. And that’s when the web broke, over 15 years ago. It has since been broken.

Read more: Is the global decline of democracy linked to social networks? We combed through the evidence to find out

Social media platforms not only place content beyond the control of those who created it, but they also provide a monolithic interface between an entire generation and the current web. Gen Z has never experienced the decentralized nature of the technologies that power the apps they use.

Rather, each social media platform tries to make the entire World Wide Web a single application on a single big server. This principle is true for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and all other social media apps.

The result is that platforms collect interactions in order to profile users and guide them to content through “recommendation” algorithms. This means people can be directed to products they can buy, or their data and behavioral insights can be sold to other companies.

Aerial view of people and connecting lines between them
Social media platforms collect interactions to profile users and guide them to content.
Getty Images

How to Fix the Internet

In response to the disruption of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, we’ve seen governments and institutions set up their own servers to join the Mastodon decentralized microblogging system. These institutions can now validate the identity of the users they host and ensure that their content meets their own terms and possibly legal requirements.

However, regaining control of microposts is not enough to fix the broken web. Social media platforms have tried in the past to entrench more basic functions like payments and banking. And people have been arbitrarily locked out of platforms, with no legal way to regain access.

Considering far-reaching regulation alone will not solve the problem in the long term and on a global scale.

Instead, governments will need to assess which digital services and data currently hosted on social media platforms are essential components of modern democratic societies. Then they will have to build national data infrastructures that allow citizens to stay 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 these data infrastructures, but one that does not disenfranchise individuals or make them the product of surveillance capitalism.

This is not a utopian vision. The Flemish government in Belgium has announced the creation of a data utility company to facilitate a digital ecosystem based on personal data vaults. Citizens control these vaults and any digital services that need the data interact with them if they have permission (for example, public transport payment systems or content sharing systems like Twitter).

Various blockchain companies want people to believe that their technology enables a “Web3”, but the technologies to realize this vision are already available and they build on the original standards of the World Wide Web. Decentralization and openness web technologies have been called Web 3.0 for about 20 years now. They have become robust, market-ready products for personal data safes.

Governments must now build the technical back-end with regulatory oversight to ensure algorithmic transparency and reliable digital transactions. We need rich data infrastructures, managed by data utility companies.

Technologies and expertise are readily available, but we need greater awareness of what true technical decentralization means and why it will protect citizens and democracy in the long run.

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