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Web 3.0: Trust Nothing

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve always avoided using the term “Web 2.0.” I think it was supposed to mean that now the web is social—but it was always social to me, so calling it Web 2.0 just made me roll my eyes. To be fair, the birth of Web 2.0 does represent a time when people became more aware of the social nature of the web that was always there.

As much as the phrase “Web 2.0” has always irritated me, I was  found this tweet by Zeynep Tufekci compelling:

Web 1.0: It’ all about information! Web 2.0: Let’s go social! Web 3:0: Weaponized/monetized fraud; bots & trolls polluting the public sphere; organized attention manipulation ops; censorship via information glut, distraction and undermining credibility: Internet of Fake Things!

I believe we will look back on the first fifteen years of this century as kinder, gentler times. Consider for example the idea that we can use the web to gather meaningful public comment on issues. We used to really believe that, didn’t we? But in 2017 when the US Federal Communications Commission called for public comments on the issue of whether to repeal net neutrality rules, more than a million comments were faked. Web 3.0 is the recognition that we live in an adversarial environment, and the source of everything needs to be verified.

We live in the era of Boaty McBoatface. In 2016 when the British government asked for the public to vote on the name of its new polar research ship, the name Boaty McBoatface was voted to the top by internet denizens. (In the end the ship was named the RSS David Attenborough, but Boaty McBoatface was used to name an autonomous underwater vehicle carried by the Attenborough.) The story is funny, except when you ponder the fact that going forwards people are going to seriously hesitate before asking for public input on naming anything.  Certainly they’ll never be so naïve again to promise to use the top-voted name.

We increasingly live in an adversarial online environment. The phishing messages I am getting have gotten better and better over the last year. At Georgia Tech we have an email address for reporting phishing attempts to our network services organization. One phishing attempt I sent in got returned to me with a polite message, “This is actually a real message.”  I sent it back again—look more closely. And in fact it was a phishing attempt. OK, maybe someone was just having a bad day, but these things are getting harder and harder to detect. As I try to coach my parents and children in safe internet use, I have finally moved to simply telling them: Don’t click on a link in an email, ever. No matter how sure you are it’s real. Go type in the address of the website you are trying to reach and access it from there.

The cataclysm approaching us is The Internet of Things. We are increasingly surrounded by devices that can listen to us or change things in our environment, and our ability to keep those things secure is dubious.  Keith Lowell Jensen quipped, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves.” If you think getting brigaded by trolls on Twitter is unpleasant now, imagine when they control your home smart speaker, light switches, and front door.

We will, of necessity, move to a new age of locked-down identities and verified information. The internet users of the 2020s will look back on us as quaint in our openness and trust. And we will find new ways to be open and trusting in smaller groups and more locked-down communications media. If you want to leave a comment for the FCC, please authenticate with your national web ID. It’s a sad but necessary transition. Unless we want to give up on the idea of public commentary altogether, which would be sadder.

The web was always social, but with Web 2.0 the public became more aware of it. The web was always an adversarial environment in need of more security, and with Web 3.0 we, sadly, became more aware of it.

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Categories: social computing Tags: ,

Beyond Net Neutrality—All the Places Our Markets are Broken

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Net neutrality has always struck me as a weirdly radical idea. Isn’t allowing companies to offer premium services at a higher price how our world works? I don’t particularly like that some people get to squeeze into coach seats and others get first class, but that’s fundamental to free enterprise.

Getting rid of net neutrality rules would be a great idea if markets for internet service worked. Here’s what we’d need: choice and transparency. Each household would have to be able to switch ISPs without a prohibitive cost in time or money. And as you shopped for an ISP, you’d need transparency—to really know what you are buying, and how much it will cost. You would know the speed of service you’re getting and that you won’t be throttled without your knowledge.

Then people would vote with their feet, paying money to companies that offer good service at a fair price. Sure, one ISP might make a deal with Bing to make them faster than Google—but then people who like Google wouldn’t use that ISP. And maybe the managers of that ISP would decide that giving unequal access wasn’t such a good idea after all. People who have more modest needs could buy plans that cost less, and others could get new features not currently available for a premium. The possibility of higher profit margins for premium features would drive innovation.  Except none of this works without choice and transparency.

Are we likely to get either choice or transparency without government regulation?  I’d bet money against it. I’ve already been secretly throttled by more than one ISP, and I had no idea that would happen when I signed up for the plan. There are only a few available service providers in most areas. Neither a wealth of options nor clarity on what you are paying for are likely to happen. For that reason, we need net neutrality rules.

All of this became clearer to me after I taught net neutrality in my Computers and Society class this fall. There’s nothing quite like teaching something to help you understand it. Stepping back from net neutrality, something struck me: There are lots of other places where we don’t have either choice or transparency.

To have a fair, functioning market, we need good information. But good information is surprisingly rare, as any one of the nearly half a million people who bought Volkswagen cars with falsified environmental data can tell you.  Even if a company isn’t committing deliberate fraud like VW, how can you know how reliable that car is really going to be? How can you tell if that organic produce is any healthier for you than the conventional produce that costs much less?  How can you tell if the doctor you went to is competent if there are no easily accessible statistics on outcomes for past patients?  The structure of our society is built on the idea of fair markets, but to a large degree those fair markets don’t exist because of lack of information.

Democrats tend to take a consumer protection view of regulation—the government should actively work to protect citizens. Republicans tend to take a free market view—let companies do what they want, and feedback and demand from consumers will drive innovation. Whichever view you take, here’s something we all can agree on: that transparency is fundamental.  Whether we take a free market or consumer protection approach, nothing will work without the availability of accurate information in a form people can understand.

Some people would argue that market forces will lead to the production of that information—but that’s simply not true. For example, it’s immensely useful for consumers to know how many calories are in foods they order at restaurants. (The cheeseburger has half the calories of the Caesar salad at Cheesecake Factory—who would’ve guessed?)  You could say, if consumers value that information, then they will only patronize restaurants with calories on menus. But did that actually ever happen? Of course not. Not until laws were passed requiring large chain restaurants to put calorie information on menus. Starting in May 2018 in the US, consumers can make smarter choices, and market pressure can lead to healthier offerings if that’s what customers want. The whole system doesn’t work without the information. Information is a prerequisite for the formation of a fair market, not a consequence.

In the absence of a fair market, net neutrality solves the problem. And if what we value is innovation, it fosters innovation in an intriguing way: new companies have an easier time getting a start when they don’t need to pay a premium for bandwidth.  It’s a strangely radical idea, but I like it. And I wonder if there are other areas where ideas like this would be useful. Healthcare neutrality, perhaps?

I’m feeling like my one semester of high-school economics is not adequate preparation to write about this subject. If any economists out there want to correct errors or add some nuance, please leave me a comment!

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