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In a global pandemic, who owns the internet is more important than ever

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Toria)

Recent weeks have seen the international workforce move to remote working models, as colleges and schools facilitate online classes, and information sharing from government sources becomes integral to day-to-day life. In grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, a large number of countries have made the decision to enforce social distancing, in attempts to slow the spread of the virus. These developments have resulted in a heavier reliance on the internet and modern technology to see us through professional and social separation. The current digital environment is growing evermore populated, and it is becoming increasingly important to ask ourselves — Who owns the internet, and how do they profit from our dependence? On first impression, it might seem logical to assume that no private or public entity truly owns the internet; it is a free space and not associated with any corporation or organisation. But, as we delve deeper and examine the online world, it is clear that the internet is privately owned, to the disadvantage of the public.

Right now, Big Tech controls the internet — a few companies have monopolies, or near-monopolies, on essential services such as search engines, shopping, and news. These corporations can set the base rules of the internet, despite occasional government intervention. With approximately 190 million users in the U.S., Facebook — a prime example of such a corporation — can potentially make up to $76 million from selling data on U.S. users. Even as more data privacy regulation is introduced and efforts are made to put consumers first, the motivation for these companies to change their business models or limit their data collection and sharing is understandably low. As Silicon Valley grows richer, regular users find themselves in a toxic data environment. Firms like Clearview AI and the discredited Cambridge Analytica abuse the information they acquire, making the world worse for all but a few stakeholders.

Regaining control of information

Emerging technology may offer a way out of this impasse and a new future for the internet. Modern distributed ledger technology (DLT) first emerged in 2009 with bitcoin — a blockchain-based digital currency touted as the answer to the excessive costs and high risks associated with the traditional financial world. But that first iteration showed only a fraction of what distributed ledgers could do. On DLT, data is stored across a decentralised network of computers, rather than with one centralised source. By removing the need for a centralised data custodian or company, such as those we see in Big Tech, we can effectively remodel the digital world. Fundamentally, this means reducing potential for data breaches and corruption on the part of custodians, and offering unprecedented user-control over personal information.

At present, the vast majority of data on the internet has a single location or home: Even if something is “in the cloud,” it’s stored in a particular location and therefore vulnerable to a single attack or to misuse by its controlling entity. Personal and institutional data is simple to track, and once collected by a website cannot be retracted by the user. Distributed ledgers use sophisticated encryption and high-level consensus algorithms to create decentralised environments in which both parties must consent before information can be shared. Vulnerability to attacks is also drastically reduced, as no malicious hacker could breach every computer on the distributed network simultaneously to edit data on the DLT’s immutable record.

In a distributed ledger ecosystem, the entire data economy could be drastically transformed. At present, personal data is shared and sold for profit by organisations without the knowledge of the user in question. The user may have clicked ‘Accept’ on the terms and conditions of a website, but the reality is that this offers little to no data control. DLT makes it possible for users to make simple one-time decisions about what sorts of entities received their data and when. Rather than accepting terms and conditions, users would create these rules themselves. The ability to regain control of information in an increasingly digital world and eliminate the possibility of data breaches is incredibly appealing from the business perspective, now more than ever, with hundreds of thousands of employees suddenly working remotely on personal devices due to the coronavirus spread.

Who owns the internet?

Even some Big Tech executives believe decentralisation could be better for the internet as a whole, even if it does reduce large firms’ power: Jack Dorsey of Twitter has famously expressed interest in funding a project to decentralise Twitter. The apparent effort to turn Twitter from a platform into a protocol would put power in the hands of individual developers and the end users. It’s no secret that Facebook has also dipped its toes into DLT. The announcement of the Libra Project in June 2019 was immediately recognised as an attempt by Facebook to create a decentralised, global marketplace within its platform, where users could transact and interact on a distributed ledger through a digital currency. Morally and ethically, the internet should belong to everyone. The ownership of the online world by colossal companies, headquartered in some of the wealthiest countries in the world, is a reality that is becoming vastly less desirable — evidently, even by those very companies themselves.

Just as the internet should never be owned by private companies, it should also never be owned by any government. Several national governments around the world control the current model of the internet by overseeing computer networks and can control who has access to the internet through physical infrastructure. The limitations placed upon populations around the world by governments who want to censor access to specific information is perhaps the most problematic example of centralisation available to us. Today’s global pandemic illustrates just how toxic centralised internet ownership can be — China’s alleged censorship of information from the rest of the world has been blamed for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Even now, there are reports that the Chinese government is successfully censoring information about the virus and removing negative news from the online space.

Having only been around for just a few years, public distributed ledgers are, in technology terms, still young. While many use cases for DLT are still theoretical, others are coming to life and already disrupting long-established industries. The current economic and digital landscape have been drastically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, and as healthcare providers battle the virus on the frontlines, other industries must continue to provide essential services to keep everyday life up and running. Alongside this, fearful populations are more reliant than ever on online information sources and are required to have blind trust in third parties. Access to immutable, accurate data is more important than ever, making it imperative for the public to ask themselves — who owns the internet, and why isn’t it us?

Jordan Fried, SVP of Business Development, Hedera Hashgraph