In the early days of the web the initial work in creating the web and the background protocols created to control the web were created by folks with a social agenda. They believed in openness and that the Internet ought to be available to everything and everyone and this was reflected in the way the web was designed. And that openness has paid dividends back to society many times since it allowed billions of people to access the web for a wide variety of services and has allowed numerous web companies and applications to flourish.
But there are many factors today that make the next few years critical for determining where the web is going in the future. Each of the following factors (and others) are going to change the web in fundamental ways, some positive and some negative:
- We are on the verge of having most of the people in the world online.
- The web has become a place for government surveillance, and perhaps even more disturbing, surveillance by commercial companies gathering data on all of us.
- There is an uptick in malicious software and hacking that is making the web more dangerous.
- We are on the verge of allowing IoT devices in our homes, which means sensors of all kinds gathering increasing amounts of personal data about us.
- Video is moving to the web and increasing there is the chance that the web will just become the new TV – channelized ad-driven entertainment.
- Soon augmented reality and virtual presence will let us feel like we are actually meeting and talking live to people through the web.
- Artificial intelligence is creating online personas used for customer service and other functions and is substituting computers for live people on the web.
- Advertising is going to get more personalized and will be aimed at each of our likes and whims.
- The Internet has already broken apart and we now have different web experiences in different countries.
A lot of these trends are pushing us away from the original openness of the Internet and instead making us more reliant on the Internet as interpreted by big companies like Facebook and Google. People are browsing less and instead are having their web experiences orchestrated by big companies that aim to keep users captive within their applications in order to market to us. These companies are also strengthening cognitive dissonance by showing people only things that agree with their life view. And this seems to be polarizing the world, making us a little more inflexible and more strident that our world view is the only right one.
A group of five large U.S foundations are concerned about all of these trends and the potential negative impact that the web can have on society. The Knight, Ford, Mozilla, MacArthur and Open Society foundations kicked off a collaboration for taking a fresh look at the concepts of an open web. They have created what they call the Netgain Partnership and have published a report that challenges others to help them look at the future of the web.
The foundations began this process with a pledge of $50 million to fund what they are calling Netgain Challenges, which are initiatives and ideas that will help to keep web as a positive presence. They are inviting wealthy web entrepreneurs to join in this process, which they view as critical to the web and its impact on society.
Early work so far has looked at such things as protecting civil liberties, guaranteeing net neutrality around the world and the creation of an ‘Association of Internet Users” that would champion needed policies with governments.
I know I am like a lot of people and the number of platforms I use on the web has decreased since I find that I can get a lot of what I am looking for from a handful of places. It’s very easy to get into a rut on the web and find your news and entertainment from the same sources. I force myself to search all over the web looking for articles about broadband, but I admit that I am far less energetic looking for different sources for other news and content. I can see how easy it would be for somebody to get totally immersed in the Facebook or Google realm of content and not look elsewhere.
What the foundations are doing is a very small effort compared to the overwhelming inevitability of some of the trends listed above. But I find it comforting that somebody is looking out for all of us. I wish them well and hope that they can help us keep some of the openness on the web that has served us so well.