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Against an Increasingly User-Hostile Web

Linked by Paul Ciano on November 4, 2017

Parimal Satyal:

For many of us in the early 2000s, the web was magical. You connected a phone line to your computer, let it make a funny noise and suddenly you had access to a seemingly-unending repository of thoughts and ideas from people around the world.

It might not seem like much now, but what that noise represented was the stuff of science fiction at the time: near-instantaneous communication at a planetary scale. It was a big deal.

We’re very good at talking about immersive experiences, personalized content, growth hacking, responsive strategy, user centered design, social media activation, retargeting, CMS and user experience. But behind all this jargon lurks the uncomfortable idea that we might be accomplices in the destruction of a platform that was meant to empower and bring people together; the possibility that we are instead building a machine that surveils, subverts, manipulates, overwhelms and exploits people.

It all comes down to a simple but very dangerous shift: the major websites of today’s web are not built for the visitor, but as means of using her. Our visitor has become a data point, a customer profile, a potential lead – a proverbial fly in the spider’s web. In the guise of user-centered design, we’re building an increasingly user-hostile web.

On April 30 1993, CERN made a bold decision. It decided to release WWW into the public domain. It renounced all intellectual property rights and essentially invited anyone at all, anywhere in the world, to play with it. Later, the director of CERN who approved the decision said that he was inspired by Richard Stallman’s vision of free, open software.

Had CERN decided otherwise and patented the technology to then license it for money, the web would arguably not have taken off the way it did. It might have died out like the Minitel did in France. The web as we know it was borne of a vision to create an open system that brought people and ideas together, with documents that “may reside on any computer supported by that web.”

The modern web is different.

It’s naturally different from a technological standpoint: we have faster connections, better browser standards, tighter security and new media formats. But it is also different in the values it espouses. Today, we are so far from that initial vision of linking documents to share knowledge that it’s hard to simply browse the web for information without constantly being asked to buy something, like something, follow someone, share the page on Facebook or sign up to some newsletter. All the while being tracked and profiled.

Almost every website you go to today reports your activities to third parties that you most likely neither know nor trust. They record where you come from, what pages you visit, how long you stay on each, where you click and where you go next. In fact, since so many websites report to the same third parties, these companies can essentially have your web history on file as you go from link-to-link, website to website. Like an omnipotent eye embedded on Sir Berners-Lee’s global system of interlinked documents, noting down everything you do and reporting to private entities who then sell this information for profit.

This is the equivalent of someone following you in real life as you go about your everyday business, like a private eye who notes down with whom you meet, what you talk about, what you spend time looking at in stores. A private eye who takes notes and then sells it to the highest bidder. But you got to enter the store for free, so you should be so glad. The stores might also justify it. “Sure it’s a bit invasive, but we’ll be able to give you better recommendations if we know what you like.”

But how do they get all this personal information – where you live, who your friends are, what your religion and ethnicity are, where you were last night, what you bought on Monday? Most of it you volunteer yourself on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The little share buttons you see on websites aren’t just there to make it easy for you to post a link to Facebook; they also allow Facebook to be present and gather information about you from pretty much any website.

Companies like Weborama make money by selling information about you. When people say, “you’re the product,” it isn’t just some analogy, it accurately reflects the business propositions of many such companies.

If you’re curious, try using Webbkoll on other websites you visit to see how privacy-friendly and respectful these websites are.

All this might not be illegal (although there’s some doubt, especially now in the context of the upcoming European General Regulation on Data Protection), but it is rather disrespectful towards the user. Not only are these websites breaking my trust—when I visit your website, I entered into contact with you, not 80 other websites—but they are loading content from websites I neither know nor trust. Some of which have been known to spread malware.

If you run a website and you put official share buttons on your website, use intrusive analytics platforms, serve ads through a third-party ad network or use pervasive cookies to share and sell data on your users, you’re contributing to a user-hostile web. You’re using free and open-source tools created by thousands of collaborators around the world, over an open web and in the spirit of sharing, to subvert users.

One of the most impressive things about the Internet (and consequently also the web) is that it is decentralized. No central authority gets to decide which page is more important than others and you don’t have to play by anyone else’s terms to publish and read what you want. There isn’t anything like a main server that stores the code that runs the Internet; it’s just a protocol on a physical backbone (of undersea cables).

You could buy a Raspberry Pi Zero today for less than 10€, connect it to the Internet, set up a chat server on it, give it a public address and the world would be able to connect to it and talk to one another. Sure, it might not perform too well and no one might actually use it, but it is technically possible.

But most of the time we spend on the web today is no longer on the open Internet - it’s on private services like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. While Facebook provides a valuable service, it is also a for-profit, company. Their source of revenue is advertising. It is the epitome of centralized.

If you replace the open web with Facebook, you’re giving up your right to publish and share on your terms. The data that you post there does not belong to you; you’re putting it in a closed system. If one day Facebook decides to shut down — unlikely as that might seem today — your data goes with it. Sure, you might be able to download parts of it, but then what?

Your attention is worth a lot to a lot of companies who are convinced that traditional advertising is dead and that micro-targeted campaigns work better. (And they mostly do, from their point of view). This drives them to come up with absurd techniques to create addiction: wish your friend happy birthday, wish your colleague a happy work anniversary (who does that?), here’s a video we made about you, three friends are going to an event near you, continue watching the video you started even as you scroll, be the first to comment, react to this photo, tell everyone what you’re doing. The longer you stay, the more information you give, the more valuable your profile — and the platform — is to advertisers.

Every time you choose to use a free service like Instagram, LinkedIn, Gmail or Snapchat, you are paying for the convenience with your eyes, your data and your attention. There’s nothing inherently wrong as long as you understand and consent to this exchange of value. But do you? Does your daughter? Your dad?

Facebook and Google are virtually everywhere today. Through share buttons, free services, mobile applications, login gateways and analytics, they are able to be present on virtually every website you visit. This gives them immense power and control. They get to unilaterally make decisions that affect our collective behavior, our expectations and our well-being. You’re either with them or out. Well, I chose out.

A web server, a public address and an HTML file are all that you need to share your thoughts (or indeed, art, sound or software) with anyone in the world. No authority from which to seek approval, no editorial board, no publisher. No content policy, no dependence on a third party startup that might fold in three years to begin a new adventure.

That’s what the web makes possible. It’s friendship over hyperlink, knowledge over the network, romance over HTTP.

In fact, the browser you’re reading this on (Chrome, Firefox, lynx, whatever), the web server that’s hosting this website (Nginx), the operating system that this server runs on (Ubuntu), the programming tools used to make it all work (python, gcc, node.js…) – all of these things were created collectively by contributors all around the world, brought together by HTTP. And given away for free in the spirit of sharing.

The web is open by design and built to empower people. This is the web we’re breaking and replacing with one that subverts, manipulates and creates new needs and addiction.

At the very least, consider that the platforms you use need you more than you need them. You have power over them (unfortunately, in numbers) and they know it. If enough people care about privacy and respect for their data and time, platforms will have to adapt to stay relevant.

It all comes down to one simple question: what do we want the web to be?

Paul Ciano

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