The future of the web could be bright.  But there's a lot to fix first

The future of the web could be bright. But there’s a lot to fix first

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The humble beginnings of the Internet can be traced back to an experiment that ultimately revolutionized the way we interact, shop, learn, and work, becoming a digital space where anyone from anywhere in the world can receive information on anything. The World Wide Web has become a source of unlimited possibilities, showing us a bright future of globalized communication.

First there was Web 1.0, then Web 2.0, and now we see the beginnings of Web3, the new era of the Internet that its advocates say will be unlike anything we’ve seen before: free, decentralized, and without political or financial agendas. of the big tech companies.

The idea behind Web3 is to embed blockchain technology, 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. Advocates of Web3 see the potential of blockchain as a reliable and transparent way to track data and make the Internet more accessible to all.

That’s the optimistic view, at least.

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

Kat Townsend, Executive Director of Open Data Collaboratives at the Web Foundation, says that one of the biggest issues facing the future of the World Wide Web is the rise of a ‘splinternet’, a fragmented Internet comprising multiple separate pieces that block free flow of information between nations and users.

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

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

“Increased fragmentation is a real threat to online privacy and security,” Townsend tells ZDNET. “When [privacy] Policies are written, promulgated or enforced? We would like to see more co-creation in these policies. Fundamentally, to have a secure web, you need policies developed with multiple partners and organizations.”

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Blockchain and virtual reality technologies also have their pitfalls. The claim that blockchain is a magical solution to Big Tech problems downplays the negative aspects of the technology, such as the fact that cryptocurrency mining is a major burden on the environment and home to bogus get-rich-quick schemes. . As it stands, this technology doesn’t live up to its hype.

Online virtual reality and augmented reality spaces are also fragmented and lack adequate security provisions. Meta has invested huge sums of money in its metaverse technology, but has faced criticism for not moderating its virtual environments, allowing harmful behavior to go unnoticed. If social media companies can’t handle the problems facing their current platforms, what does this 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 will ensure that organizations are held accountable for the ethical use of virtual reality. The problem, however, is the constant struggle between wanting less government regulation and having to trust companies to make decisions with the best interests of users in mind.

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

Townsend references the Web Foundation’s Contract for the Web as a guide to working toward a more secure Internet. The contract, created by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, outlines the responsibilities of governments, businesses, and citizens in a collaborative effort to create a safe and accessible Internet. This work includes making the Internet accessible and affordable; develop technologies that support the positive aspects of the Internet; combat harmful behavior online; and respecting the right to privacy and respect for all Internet users.

Few governments have officially endorsed the deal — 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 still walked away. more of the Berners-Lee view.

Companies that have been outspoken in their support of the Web Foundation’s Contract for the Web have also come under fire. In 2019, after Facebook announced its endorsement, Berners-Lee criticized Mark Zuckerberg for continuing to allow targeted political ads on the platform ahead of the UK general election.

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In 2021, the Web Foundation created the Technology Policy Design Lab to understand how well the contract holds up in today’s online world. The initiative aims to identify solutions to critical issues affecting the web, including bullying, gender equality, Internet access and connectivity, content moderation, Internet fragmentation, privacy, and AI ethics. .

The lab works with businesses, governments, NGOs, researchers and Internet users to create technology policies that can be adopted at scale and with “human-centered design” at the forefront.

The scope of influence is somewhat limited, as the organization is not a government entity. The platforms and governments that support the Contract for the Web are not required to follow its guidelines, and there is only so much that Internet users can do to stay safe online. But it is hoped that by sharing lessons and best practices from around the world, stakeholders can contribute to a collective effort to make the Internet better, safer, and more equitable for all.

“The web is the fundamental public commons. For those who have access, it’s the place where we can connect with each other,” says Townsend. “No matter where or who you are, you should be able to have a safe and reliable experience on the web.”

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