The web is broken - Guess who's trying to fix it?
“Let’s go back, let’s go back, let’s go way on, way back when.”—Aretha Franklin, “Think”
Happy Birthday, World Wide Web! You’re 25 years old today. On August 23, 1991, people were able to use the web for the first time, as Tech Times’ Anu Passary describes in a post dated today. Some folks have even begun calling today Internaut Day. No, I’m not one of them.
Lately, I’m feeling more like an “Inter-naught” than an “Internaut,” whatever that is. I’m not the only one, either. In fact, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the person who conceived the web and put the first few pieces together (pictured above), believes his creation is irreparably broken.
(By the way, if you’re wondering what the first web page looked like, here it is, as it appeared on August 6, 1991. People were invited to view those earliest few web pages on the following August 23.)
Working to re-decentralize the internet
What was originally a freewheeling network with no center and no dominant force has evolved into an information utility controlled by a handful of companies. Digital Trends’ David Weinberger writes in an August 10, 2016, post that Google owns search, Facebook owns social networking, and EBay owns auctions. Weinberger could have added that Amazon owns retail, but that’s not quite true, yet.
Egregious aside #1: If you’re curious about whether Facebook labels you a liberal, moderate, or conservative based on your activity on the site, you can find out by going to the Ad Preferences settings while you’re signed in. From there, choose Lifestyle and Culture under the Interests tab, and look under “US Politics.” If you don’t see this option, select “See more.” Note that if you’ve disabled ad preferences—as I have—you won’t see much of anything listed under Lifestyle and Culture, which suits me just fine.
Egregious aside #2: EBiz MBA lists the most popular sites based on unique visitors per month. The three with more than a billion monthly visitors are Google (1.6 billion), Facebook (1.1 billion), and YouTube, which Google owns (1.1 billion). In fourth place is Yahoo at 750 million, followed by Amazon at 500 million and Wikipedia at 475 million. Bunched under these sites at just under 300 million monthly visitors are Twitter, Bing, EBay, MSN, Microsoft, and LinkedIn.
Today’s web runs on personal information collected and used by the sites and by third parties to target the ads that pay for the services—not to mention the ungodly profits the system delivers to a handful of extremely rich tech executives.
This is not the World Wide Web that Sir Tim had in mind back in 1991, and he’s now working to do something about it via a project at his MIT lab called Solid, for “social linked data.” Solid uses “personal online data stores,” or pods, that serve as gatekeepers for your private information. Applications access the pods only after you grant them permission to do so. You decide where to store your pods, and you decide which services can access the information in the pods.
Berners-Lee takes the concept even further via linked data, or LID, designed to make it easy to share some but not all of your personal information. For example, you could provide a climate-monitoring laboratory with only your travel history to help it track carbon emissions.
Creating a privacy-based peer-to-peer internet
The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) takes a more revolutionary approach to rewiring the internet. As Digital Trends’ Weinberger explains, IPFS currently operates as an extension to the Chrome and Firefox browsers. It serves up web pages the way files are served on a peer-to-peer network: some parts from over here, some parts from over there. Since you’re not receiving content directly from the source, it’s more difficult for the services to track your online activities.
The plan of IPFS’s backers is to be recognized as a standard protocol eventually, which would allow support for the protocol to be baked into the browsers. Just as with any peer-to-peer network, the success of decentralizing system such as IPFS depends on attracting enough people to serve as network nodes to ensure adequate performance, among other considerations.
Looking for the upside to online ads… and coming up empty
According to TechCrunch’s Jon Evans in an August 20, 2016, post, there are two kinds of online ads: bad and worse. For anyone who is used to having an ad blocker in their browser and mobile phone, switching to a device with no ad blockers leaves you disgusted by autoplaying videos and popups that block content and won’t go away, among other ad nuisances. As Evans points out, ads can use up to 75 percent of your data, and they “devour” your mobile phone’s battery.
Your best bet is to use an ad blocker such as AdBlock Plus, which is available for PCs, Macs, and iPhones. Google doesn’t let you block ads on Android phones, so Evans suggests either using the Brave browser that replaces tracking ads with their non-tracking counterparts; or resetting your DNS to use an ad blocker such as Optimal.
Evans calls out the ad-tech executives who insist people want to see ads. Nobody likes ads. Or as Evans puts it, “People hate ads.” (Emphasis is his.) Even if some individual ads are pleasing to the eye or otherwise entertaining, the cumulative effect of pervasive, obtrusive, nosey advertising leaves us “numbed and disgusted,” according to Evans. Smart merchants will wake up before it’s too late and they lose the trust of their customers once and for all.
Average web page now has four third-party trackers
Researchers at the University of Washington compared tracking in the early days of the web – 1996 – to the web tracking going on today. TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey reports on their findings in an August 15, 2016, article. The Tracking Excavator project discovered that while you might have encountered one third-party tracker on a web page in 1996, these days you’ll load four such trackers on average each time a page loads in your browser.
In addition, the trackers you bump into on one site are much more likely to be on the other sites you visit: the most-active trackers were found on 20 percent to 30 percent of all the sites the researchers tested. Last but not least, the trackers have become much more sophisticated in how they track, so they can correlate different types of activity across many of the sites you browse to.
So just in case you needed another reason to install an ad blocker, there you go.