How to fix the Internet: Ratchet down the anonymity, rein in the ads
The Internet started as a way for researchers to share information. Then Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, which made it easier to navigate the trove of data stored on the Internet. Then came the first web browsers, then more and faster connections to the network, then…. Well, you know what happened next.
Somewhere along the way, the Internet morphed into the monster many of us wrestle with every day. It has become an essential part of the lives of billions of us. As Walter Isaacson writes in a March 19, 2016, post on LinkedIn Pulse, much of the Internet’s power and promise lies in its ability to prevent central authorities from controlling the flow of information. Yet Isaacson points to two inherent flaws in the way the Internet has evolved – which he refers to as “original sins.”
The first is anonymity. Isaacson admits that anonymity is an important component of the Internet, but he says it has been “indulged.” There needs to be a secure area of the Internet in which everyone’s identity is authenticated and public. In addition to facilitating financial transactions, identity verification would make Internet discourse more civil, according to Isaacson, because people would have to “take responsibility for what they say.”
When we lose our civility, we lose our sense of community. Isaacson cites the WELL, created years ago by Stewart Brand, as an example of a true Internet community. The WELL allowed people to use pseudonyms, but those could always be traced back to the individual behind the pseudonym.
The second Internet “sin” Isaacson identifies is the decision by publishers to rely on advertising for their revenue, which he states is “an unsustainable business model.” The increase in ad money will never keep pace with the increase in the number of websites chasing after that ad money. Even worse, it means publishers are no longer “beholden to [their] readers.”
Putting the anonymity and ad genies back in their bottles
To address the first of these two fatal flaws of the Internet, Isaacson proposes that sites create communities that are “less anonymous and more curated.” Anonymous areas of the Internet would still exist, but we need the opportunity to spend our online time in “places where people can be part of communities that aren’t susceptible to trolling and anonymity – places where people take responsibility for their own words.”
The second Internet sin can only be addressed by the adoption of an easy payment system for online content – one that doesn’t require that you sign into a password-protected account simply to read an article or view a video that interests you. Isaacson proposes use of a bitcoin-like micropayment system that is embedded in our browsers.
Brave promises to return a percentage of the revenue generated by its ads to the site owners, starting at 55 percent and increasing to as much as 70 percent. For the Brave system to work, it must attract a critical mass of users, which Maney points out is most likely to occur if the company can license its ad-serving/revenue-sharing technology to other browser makers.
More sites block visitors who block ads
Perhaps the true significance of the Brave announcement – at least in the short term – is that it offers an alternative to the escalating war between ad blockers and the sites that rely on the ads for their livelihood. One of the first big-name sites that took aim at ad-blocking browser extensions was Forbes.com. Several months ago, I attempted to open a Forbes article only to be prompted to add the site to my ad blocker’s white list, which I did. After all, there are dozens of sites on my AdBlock Plus white list, most of which were placed there automatically by AdBlock Plus’s vendor, Eyeo.
There’s no escaping the built-in contradiction of some sites choosing to block visitors who block ads. In a March 20, 2016, article on LinkedIn Pulse, Alexander Hanff describes being prevented from accessing an article on Wired about his efforts to protect the privacy of people online because he uses a browser that blocks ads. So Wired makes money from the ads that accompany a story about the threats to our privacy posed by online ads, but it blocks people from reading the article unless they disable the tool that helps protect them from that very threat.
If you don’t believe web ads pose a threat, check out the results of an investigation by security software firm Malwarebytes into a recent “malvertising” attack on a newspaper site in the UK. In a March 16, 2016, post on the company’s blog, Jerome Segura concludes that “the line between legitimate advertisers and rogue ones is getting finer and finer.”
The fake ad server used in the attack on the Daily Mail appeared to be a legitimate UK-based business, but the criminals used a technique called domain shadowing to steal the registrant’s credentials and create the phony URL that led to their malware-delivering server. The bad guys used banner ads that mimicked those of legitimate companies and generated bogus SSL certificates. These and other actions made it nearly impossible to spot the fake ads without looking deep, deep beneath the surface.
Segura points out that these types of attacks are occurring in countries around the world, and while they can be thwarted by most security programs, the attackers thrive by identifying and going after vulnerable systems – the low-hanging fruit. The best preventive measure, however, is to use an ad-blocking browser extension.
Online tracking is far from harmless
What’s in your online profile? An accumulation of nearly everything you’ve done online, and all the personal information you’ve shared – whether explicitly or implicitly. That profile now affects all aspects of your life, as Fast Company’s Jessica Leber writes in a March 15, 2016, article. According to Leber, “[y]our career, your love life, major decisions about your health and well-being, and even if you end up in jail, are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs you've left behind—many of which you don't even know you've dropped in the first place.”
Leber points out that just like any other technology, predictive analytics – the use of big data to forecast future trends – can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how it’s used. For example, it was used in Florida to help identify children in the foster-care system who are most at risk. However, some communities fear predictive analytics will be used by local police as a form of racial profiling and will exacerbate uneven enforcement of laws.
Consider that many colleges have made your social media activities a criterion when determining whether you should be admitted. If your Facebook profile was one of the reasons you were turned down, you’d never find out about it. The same thing is happening when you apply for a job, look for insurance, or request government assistance. As Leber points out, “people are more than their data.”
The more personal data there is to share, the more willing we are to share it
You might think that the potential misuse of the personal information by the collectors would make people more reluctant to share. Forbes’ Martin Zwilling writes in a March 16, 2016, article that at least one study indicates we’re actually becoming more willing to disclose private data to businesses and government agencies.
Zwilling cites consumer-behavior researcher David W. Norton, who places people in one of four categories based on their willingness to share personal information:
According to Norton’s research, the largest impediment to sharing is lack of trust in companies’ ability to protect private information. The greatest benefit to consumers is the convenience of being able to transact business online quickly and simply. At present, the trade-off appears to be security for convenience.
The increasing willingness of consumers to share personal data coincides with the predicted explosion in information relating directly to us that will be generated by the Internet of Things. When it comes to personal profiles as valuable commodities, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.