As lawmakers begin to regulate online companies, what does this mean for innovation and creativity on the Internet?
Twenty-five years ago I landed my first job in IT working for an Internet service provider in the UK. At the time I didn’t understand the first thing about the industry or what type of career I wanted to carve out for myself, I just knew that I had a passion for computers and technology and it fascinated me.
Most people don’t remember what the Internet was like back then, in fact most people didn’t even realize there was an Internet. This was back in the day when people were just adjusting to the idea of being able to make a telephone call with a mobile device, you read your news in a newspaper, and your ‘social network’ was the people that you hung out with in the pub.
With the introduction of the web to this new digital space things began to change. The web provided a platform to create, invent and share in a way the world had never seen before. As web technology began to blossom there were seemingly limitless possibilities available to innovative entrepreneurs and technical wizards. This was a new age, an age where the only barrier to success was your imagination and dedication to creating a product that your users would enjoy. A teenager working from their bedroom could turn a quirky idea into a business with almost no start up costs. It was the epochal entrepreneurial playground, a place of dreams, the promised land for any aspiring technically minded individual.
What was unique about the web was the low barrier to entry. You could dream up the next revolutionary way to connect people together and develop it in your spare time as a student at Harvard, and maybe, just maybe, you’d make a success of it.
This ability to freely innovate without cumbersome overheads is what birthed a lot of the Internet based businesses that today we consider household names. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and more, are all built on the shoulders of the original Internet pioneers who dared to dream, who had a free and open space to create and to innovate.
That is what the Internet has always represented, the ultimate level playing field, where ones ideas and creativity are the key to success. However now this amazing space that has fostered some of the greatest innovation in the twenty first century is under threat.
As the web has matured, a select few companies have emerged as notable leaders in the industry. Their success is largely due to one important realization that changed the shape of Internet commerce. The discovery of a commodity easily obtainable on the Internet that could be distilled into tremendous wealth. Data.
As online services became more and more pervasive in peoples lives we started sharing more and more information. Now we share data that varies from our dates of birth to our political views and sexual orientation. We are encouraged daily to share this personal information without any thought to who can access that information or how it might be used.
The reality is that the economics of the Internet have always leveraged the value of data. Advertising is the most prolific revenue generating model for Internet services, providing features to the end-user at no cost while selling premium space to advertisers. Companies that have immense amounts of user data and the ability to process it are able to target adverts at users statistically more likely to be relevant, which results in higher conversation rates and engagement with advertisers and allows them to sell advertising mediums at a higher premium.
As an Internet user, I don’t object to this. Advertising funded services have been around for many years before the adoption of the Internet. It underpins the business model of every private television and radio station. We have become a society accustomed to being bombarded by advertising from magazines, buildings and on the road side. What the Internet brought to the advertising industry was the ability to use collected data to target specific groups of people with relevant adverts to get the most value out of their marketing efforts. The companies that have emerged at the forefront of advertising are the ones most capable of gathering and distilling data, extrapolating more and more information to aid their marketing precision.
Recently though we’ve seen a more disturbing trend in the conversation. Headline grabbing stories alleging foreign state actors using large amounts of data collected from Internet users to influence national politics at an unprecedented scale by using social media to deliver targeted messages to sway peoples opinions. We have started to wake up to the fact that in the wrong hands this data could represent a fundamental threat to our every day lives.
The world has opened it’s eyes to the Internet’s dark secret. The little nuggets of data that we share on a daily basis, and have been sharing for years, when collated and processed on a national or global scale, wield an enormous amount of power and influence.
Bring on the regulators
We now find ourselves on the brink of a new era of digital life, and the Internet as we know it is going to change. As the fallout from the allegations of political meddling by foreign actors stokes fear in the people and a shift of public opinion against the large Internet giants, the world looks to the lawmakers to regulate the wild lands of the Internet.
Left unchecked there are some very real and frightening possibilities of what our personal data could be used for. Up until recently I have never really been too concerned over the subject of privacy. It’s not a new issue. When CCTV surveillance started to become prevalent there were public uproars over our privacy and the governments ability to spy on it’s citizens. That fear never resonated with me, I didn’t, and still don’t worry about the fact that my image is captured by hundreds of CCTV cameras on my walk to work. But with emerging technologies like facial recognition it starts giving me pause for thought. Being one of a billion faces in the worlds largest videotape is one thing, but when technology can take my image, identify me and profile me in a large database, things feel entirely different. Once that data is cross referenced with other data harvested from websites I use or credit cards I pay with, then the controller of that data can now know where I’ve been, with whom, what I have bought, what I have read or written on the Internet. Essentially there would be very little about me that would be private anymore, and anything I wished to keep private would likely be impossible. I spend my life trying to avoid donning a tinfoil hat, and I don’t believe I am wearing one now, I firmly believe that this is where we are heading.
As an IT worker I see the money that big companies in all industries are investing in “Big Data”, the ability to take large sets of data from their users or partners and extrapolate new information from that to give them a business angle. Of course not all companies are doing this for some evil purpose, many are doing so to improve their customers experience or generate better marketing results. Without controls however, there are far more worrying applications for this information.
Fundamentally the key issues lie around personal data, who owns it and what third parties are allowed to do with that data. Defining those principles may seem straightforward but creating laws that are compatible with how the Internet functions and that can be implemented in a fair way that protects the public but does not damage small service providers and start ups from innovating and creating seems to me to be a very fine balance.
In Europe we’ve seen the introduction of several new pieces of legislation regulating what site operators are obliged to do in order to protect users data. Most of these laws are ill thought out and don’t get to the crux of the issue.
More recently, in a faint glimmer of hope, members of the European Parliament rejected the proposed Digital Copyright bill that would have had a profound negative impact on the Internet in Europe in it’s current form. Although the book is not closed on that yet as it’s coming back for further parliament debate in September and will likely face another vote after amendments have been added.
What does the future hold?
I think it’s naive to think that legislation and regulation have no place on the Internet, the sheer amount of data the we share with Internet service operators and the potential for companies to use that data in ways that the public in no way consent to is an issue that’s not going to go away. But we run the real risk of destroying what the Internet stands for if lawmakers rush to push through legislation without real in depth consultation with parties that truly understand the nuances, technical obstacles and functionality of the Internet and tailor regulations to not only meet the demands of protecting users but do so whilst maintaining the integrity of a free Internet.
The Internet as we know it is under threat, from knee jerk reactions born out of fear inducing headlines of political meddling to the ongoing debate about net neutrality. Let’s not lose focus on how the Internet became the immense global revolutionary platform it has become.
Twenty years ago a teenager could develop his dreams from his bedroom. The Internet fostered innovation, creativity, access and a platform for ideas to flourish. Now that same teenager needs to worry about privacy policies, cookie policies and other GDPR requirements just to be able to enable users sign up to their website. If the Digital Copyright bill ends up being passed in it’s current form in September it will place an enormous burden on small website operators and start ups.
Is the public in general any better off for that? What does it say for the free Internet when you can’t launch a new website without getting a lawyer involved? How far are we away from requiring a state license in order to operate on the Internet?
What I truly worry about is that the wrong kind of legislation will make the Internet such a bureaucratic place to set up shop that the teenager with the big idea will never be able to develop their dream, and that the only people with the resources needed to navigate these waters will be the big tech companies. Ironically, this would lead to the exact scenario that the lawmakers are trying to avoid.
I used to end my articles with a conclusion, but that suggests that I have all the answers, which I really don’t. So now I’m going to make an effort to write articles that start conversations and end them with questions. How do we protect our data from abuse but maintain the Internet as a free and open creative space that anyone can access and launch their dream, not just ‘Big Net’? How do we balance protecting the privacy rights of end users with the digital rights of anyone who publishes or creates content on the Internet? This matters, be a part of the conversation! You can get involved in the comments or engage with me on Twitter at @crayfishx.