The network’s founders stressed its openness and decentralisation, but many of its services are now in the hands of a few corporations. This needs to change.
Since its privatisation during the ’90s, the internet has steadily reinvented social interaction. Its most iconic corporations have successfully harvested its potential for decentralisation (coproduction of encyclopaedic content, individual expression, hyperlinks, likes, shares, dating, funding, housing, car-sharing, etc.) and individualisation of social practices (listening to music, watching movies or TV shows, targeted advertising, shopping).
Such unprecedented catering to individual desires has, paradoxically, coincided with an unprecedented concentration of digital power within a handful of spaces that control social interaction. We are witnessing an unparalleled concentration of digital tracking, market transactions and control within the hands of a shrinking number of corporations that have cornered our ever-increasing digital practices.
Using the word “virtual” to describe the digital world has delayed our awareness of the true reality of digital practices – and of the stakes. Most parliaments, however modern, are overwhelmed by the extent and speed to which the internet has been deployed. As a result, while the internet was supposed to shrink distances, promote freedom of speech, improve collective intelligence, ensure the network’s decentralisation and resilience, we are witnessing the re-emergence of States, an unprecedented increase in surveillance, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding embezzlement, the undermining of intellectual property, platform hypercentrality and digital-device vulnerability.
In a context in which the internet’s ability to fulfil our every wish seems to have no limit, it’s vital that we grasp how strongly the internet has become social, not to say political. This reappearance of politics is relentless as the internet has become one of the most important spaces hosting contemporary interactions. And because politics and the internet now operate on very different scales, it’s not surprising to see growing tension between the globalisation of politics and the balkanisation of the internet.
The concentration of digital power within the hands of a few corporations has reached its peak efficiency. But such domination will soon become unbearable, raising vital social, economic and political issues. The time has come to apply to these services the very principles that were initially applied to the internet and that made it a revolutionary tool: standardisation, openness and decentralisation.
It is essential to pursue the development and promotion of open standards, which will not only manage communications, but also social interaction. Social media, instant messaging and collaborative platforms have to become open standards to ensure more open, respectful and secure services, for the benefit, above all, of users and to allow uninhibited innovation. This challenge is tough, but urgent. Instead of trying to find the new Google, the new Facebook or the new Uber, Europe would do well to support the next internet, actively supporting any initiatives that will truly open our digital lives, economies and policies.
The concentration of digital power within the hands of a few corporations will soon become unbearable.
A column by:
Boris Beaude is professor of digital cultures and humanities at the University of Lausanne. His research focuses on the internet as a space of production, collaboration and coexistence. @
He is the author of The Ends of the Internet and many papers about the effects of digital tracking.