Discussions on Capitol Hill and in legislative houses across Europe in recent weeks have yet again been dominated by the harmful effects of social media.
Yet again, lawmakers are seeking answers around failures that are built into the design of the internet’s current model.
Yet again, policy makers and Silicon Valley executives are sparring over whether tech companies should face greater oversight and more-stringent regulations, or whether they should be allowed to change their practices voluntarily and without penalty.
And yet again, the conversation is centered around how to fix a model that is undeniably and irretrievably broken.
Enough. It is long past time to move beyond a technology infrastructure that generates profit from harm.
Despite the internet’s many benefits, its current model warps our economic system by monetizing personal data and selling it to the highest bidder. Social media has wrecked public discourse by prioritizing clicks over truth and by making misinformation and outrage more profitable than facts.
The technology that underpins everything we do is designed to benefit platforms over people and, as we increasingly move our lives online, is eroding the civic institutions that should strengthen and unite our society. These harms disproportionately affect individuals who are already vulnerable, driving a culture of toxic inequality. And the resulting lack of trust is threatening our very democracy.
It is time to fix the problem once and for all.
Big Tech has made good on its promise to “move fast and break things” in ways that are simply beyond repair and can’t be addressed solely by regulation. Instead of exploring ways to repair a broken model, we should focus on a new internet architecture built on a more equitable and more positive foundation. Ultimately, we need to completely reset our current technology model and develop a new approach that is focused on users, optimized for access and equity, and built for the common good.
This may sound bold but in fact is within our reach. We have the ability to build an open-source web protocol that, by its very design, would shift the control of personal data from private companies to individuals, enable internet users to own their social networks and plug them into various applications, and pave the way for people to benefit directly from the economic value of their data.
An open web architecture lays the foundation for many to work together to build new models that can release us from our dependence on a surveillance economy and the algorithmic choices made by few corporations. It can give us new tools to collectively fight disinformation and hate speech. It can encourage innovators to develop competitive products that could better serve society. Ultimately, it provides an opportunity to shift the control of social networks from corporations to the people that build them.
In addition, we can create a governance framework to guide this next generation of technology by bringing technologists together with social scientists, ethicists, and legal and policy experts to promote a cross-disciplinary “ethical tech” approach that will make progress durable over the long term.
And with enough support from people and institutions, we can construct a movement for change that prioritizes internet users over platforms, opens new doors of opportunity, and ignites positive social, economic, and civic engagement.
This new direction represents a new era for the web. And it’s our surest path forward. We need to return the ownership and control of personal data to individuals, where it belongs; embed standards and principles into technology, where they can do the most good; and redirect the economic benefits of the internet from a few powerful companies to society more broadly.
Despite the problems our current web infrastructure has caused and exacerbated, we have the ability to build a more open and equitable civic architecture—an internet for the common good. With better technology and a governance framework to guide it, we have a real opportunity to strengthen our democracy, repair our social fabric, create a more equitable economy, and ensure a better future for us all.
Of course, realizing this vision will not be easy. If we’re going to meet this moment—and end the current cycle of failure and outrage—we need to take collective action, and do so with urgency. We also need to face the fact that we need a new approach. Tweaking a failed system won’t solve the problems that have been exposed. Minor adjustments—and even major regulations—cannot restore trust or create the kind of inclusive framework that will take us where we need to go.
It is time to stop focusing on a repair strategy. Instead, we must move quickly and collaboratively to transform how the internet works—and for whom it works.
Frank H. McCourt Jr. is a civic entrepreneur, the chairman and chief executive officer of McCourt Global, and the founder of Project Liberty.
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