The future of the internet could be bright. But first there is much to fix

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The humble beginnings of the internet can be traced back to an experiment that eventually revolutionized the way we interact, shop, learn and work, becoming a digital space where anyone from anywhere in the world can get information on any topic can. The World Wide Web became a source of unlimited possibilities and showed us a bright future of globalized communication.

First there was Web 1.0, then Web 2.0, and now we’re seeing the beginnings of Web3, the new era of the Internet that its proponents say will be unlike anything we’ve seen before: free, decentralized, and sans BigTech political and financial agendas.

The idea behind Web3 is to integrate blockchain technologies like cryptocurrencies and NFTs into the fabric of our digital world. Virtual and augmented reality also come into play, including the introduction of the metaverse. Web3 advocates see blockchain’s potential as a reliable and transparent way to track data and make the internet a more accessible space for all.

At least that is the optimistic view.

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But on the internet, almost anything with positive potential can be used with malicious intent. Much like today, the next iteration of the internet could continue to allow bad actors to carry out carefully crafted scams, harassment, abuse, misinformation, and identity theft—perhaps on an ever-increasing scale.

Kat Townsend, executive director of Open Data Collaboratives at the Web Foundation, says one of the biggest issues for the future of the World Wide Web is the emergence of a “splinternet” — a fragmented Internet made up of multiple separate pieces that restrict the free flow of data block information between nations and users.

In a fragmented web, countries can decide what users can and cannot do online. Governments typically justify Internet fragmentation with national security concerns, such as B. the US attempt to ban Chinese-owned TikTok. In many cases, the fragmentation of the Internet is a means for governments to curb the influence of the Internet on political discourse.

Fragmentation creates significant roadblocks to global collaboration and the free flow of information. According to Townsend, it’s not enough for companies to take responsibility for addressing privacy and fragmentation concerns. To be successful, policies must be a collaborative effort.

“Increasing fragmentation is a real threat to online privacy and security,” Townsend told ZDNET. “When [privacy] Policies are written, how are they enacted or enforced? We’d like to see more co-creation in these guidelines. Basically, for a safer Internet, you need policies that are developed with multiple partners and organizations.”

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Blockchain and virtual reality technologies also have their pitfalls. Claiming that blockchain is a magical solution to big tech’s problems minimizes the negative sides of the technology, such as the fact that cryptocurrency mining is a major drain on the environment and is home to fake get-rich-quick schemes will. As it stands, this technology does not live up to their expectations.

Online VR and AR spaces are also fragmented and lack proper safeguards. Meta has invested huge sums of money in its Metaverse technology, but has faced criticism for not moderating its virtual environments and leaving malicious behavior unchecked. If social media companies aren’t tackling the problems of their current platforms, what does that say about the security of our future internet?

The Web Foundation hopes that users will hold big tech companies to higher standards, and that legal and community guidelines ensure organizations are held accountable for the ethical use of VR. The problem, however, is the ongoing battle between the desire for less government regulation and trusting companies to make decisions in the best interests of users.

“We are thrilled that people are curious about how to make the world a better place. But what we have seen is that blockchain-enabled technologies are being used to consolidate power and do more harm than good,” says Townsend.

Townsend points to the Web Foundation’s Contract for the Web as a guide to working towards a safer Internet. The treaty, created by Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, outlines the responsibilities of governments, businesses and citizens in working together to create a safe and accessible Internet. This work includes making the Internet accessible and affordable; developing technologies that support the positive aspects of the Internet; combating harmful online behavior; and respecting the right of all internet users to privacy and respect.

Few governments have officially endorsed the treaty: Russia and China, for example, were never expected to sign, and after former President Donald Trump rolled back Obama-era net neutrality provisions, the US moved further away from Berners -Lee’s vision.

Companies that have publicly supported the Web Foundation contract have also faced criticism. In 2019, after Facebook announced its support, Berners-Lee criticized Mark Zuckerberg for continuing to allow targeted political advertising on the platform ahead of the UK general election.

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In 2021, the Web Foundation established the Tech Policy Design Lab to understand how well the treaty holds up in today’s online world. The initiative aims to find solutions to critical issues affecting the internet, including harassment, gender equality, internet access and connectivity, content moderation, internet fragmentation, privacy and AI ethics.

The lab works with companies, governments, NGOs, researchers and internet users to develop technology policies that can be adopted at scale and with human-centered design at the forefront.

The sphere of influence is somewhat limited as the organization is not a government body. Platforms and governments that support the Treaty for the Web are not required to follow its guidelines, and there are limited things web surfers can do to stay safe online. But it is hoped that by sharing experiences and best practices from around the world, stakeholders can contribute to a common effort to make the internet better, safer and fairer for all.

“The Web is the fundamental public commons. For those who have access, it’s where we can connect,” says Townsend. “No matter where or who you are, you should be able to have a safe and trustworthy experience online.”

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