Give the Web Back to the Users

Global internet

We all know of the web’s many ills, but what are the solutions? Richard Whitt, head of the GLIA Foundation, thinks he has the answer – give the internet back to the users. Writing for Fast Company, Mr. Whitt says that change could be brought about by using existing technologies and business practices to advocate on behalf of the user.

On this better, more user-driven web, each of us would be in control of our digital lives. For example, we could have our personal information (browsing history, past purchases, content preferences) curated and stored, in a localized repository we control. We users then could choose to share or withhold our personal profile, including some or all of that data, as we see fit, in exchange for specific services from internet companies. Moreover, on this new web, users also could dispatch a personal AI avatar to act as a virtual envoy, both online and offline.

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One thought on “Give the Web Back to the Users

  • First thought of what user-driven web looks like: Geocities, Angel Fire, MySpace – content created by amateurs with HTML (and often amateurs with the subject matter). I can put all my own interests, favorite links, ramblings, and useless to useful content on my own personal website. That way it is not owned or curated by Google, Facebook, etc.

    Medium, Twitter, Reddit – Those are taking over the blogging aspect of ramblings and sharing ideas but in a more visually appealing and consistent way than personal websites connected by web rings.

    Instagram, PhotoBucket, Flickr — a variety of services for storing and sharing photos.

    Facebook — mix of the above.

    From reading the article, there is hand waving and magic, but it sounds like the basic idea is to have modern services like Facebook, Medium, Instagram, Reddit, etc. but to not allow them to collect data on you but instead store it locally on the user’s computer and the services have to ask permission for it. It is basically a complicated ad blocker system.

    I’m not sure it could be enforced technologically because the interactions are taking place on the service’s web servers with a logged in user – unless you no longer have user accounts at each of these places, in which case the service cannot store your posts and pictures either but would have to keep those on the user’s local computer and ask permission to have them. That is more like the idea of selling a software package to run locally, like a word processor, except with advanced sharing capabilities so it keeps the functionality of modern services on the internet.

    The article is proposing a complex ad blocker system where the ad blocker company is a “trusted intermediary” like a fiduciary. With someone actively fighting for the user it might be easier to make the ad blockers powerful enough to win, but you still have the problem of where is the data stored and how is it associated with user accounts in a way that the application providers cannot make use of that data without the user’s permission, so it still ends up being more like selling a software package to a user with advanced sharing capabilities.

    To some extent, Apple is trying to be this intermediary because they are already making improvements to Safari and both iOS and macOS device hardware to improve the privacy of users. They cannot fully jump into the position advocated by the article all at once without completely shutting down the applications, like Facebook, that users currently use. It might not be a very quick path to ease Facebook into a position where Apple could be that intermediary because it means Facebook has to divest itself of all access to a user’s identity and data. (Or potentially just identity, but there are algorithms that can assign identity to de-identified data.)

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