Are we on the eve of yet another internet revolution? We were gathered in Berlin for a conference organized by digital learning platform ada, according to technology experts.
New technology could overhaul the web as we know it in the next decade, they said — both in how it’s built and what it looks like.
On a technical level, tech idealists hope that blockchain technology will help build a new decentralized architecture underpinning the internet. In this new ‘web3 era’, the idea would be that instead of a handful of tech giants, users have control over their data, privacy and what they create online.
“This is reinventing how the internet is set up in the backend,” says author Shermin Voshmgir of Portugal. “It’s a complete paradigm shift.”
At the same time, companies around the world are working on technology to revolutionize the way we navigate the Internet.
In October 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced to rebrand his tech behemoth as “Meta”
Their vision: Instead of scrolling through websites or apps, people will soon be virtually strolling through a three-dimensional version of the internet called the “metaverse” – a kind of digital landscape where users can work, buy things or meet their friends, and where physical and digital reality come together.
“It will be like a walk-in Internet,” said Constanze Osei, who leads the social and innovation policy efforts for Germany, Austria and Switzerland at US tech giant Meta, formerly known as Facebook.
But as companies like hers invest billions in developing that next generation of the internet, digital rights activists warn that the companies will eventually cash in on their investment — and that this could thwart efforts to empower users with more power over their digital selves.
“The metaverse could become the most invasive surveillance system ever,” said Micaela Mantegna, an Argentine lawyer and digital rights researcher.
The evolution of the internet
To understand where the next-generation Internet might go wrong, it helps to look at how we got here.
As early as the 1960s, researchers started connecting computers around the world. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the invention of the worldwide web and web browsers made the network available to anyone who could afford an Internet connection.
Since then, the web has turned every aspect of society upside down, from the way people do business to how they find information or interact with one another.
“Everything has changed with the Internet,” said Miriam Meckel, ada CEO and professor of business communications at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “And the internet itself has changed too.”
During the early stages of the web, people surfed the web from their desktop computers and navigated it mainly through search engines. That changed in the 2000s with the rise of social media and mobile internet, giving rise to the online world as we know it today.
At the heart of this “web2” are online platforms such as Meta’s Facebook and Instagram or, more recently, messaging services such as Telegram.
Those platforms have helped dissidents in authoritarian regimes organize protests or give a voice to marginalized groups. But revelations like the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal have shown they are also being used to spread hatred, amplify disinformation and influence democratic elections.
Meanwhile, a small number of Big Tech companies such as Meta or Google’s parent company Alphabet have come to dominate their respective segments of the Internet economy.
More power for the users
To return power to individuals and communities, people like author Shermin Voshmgir have proposed rebuilding the web with decentralized public blockchains – databases that can be searched by anyone and shared on computers around the world.
Such a “web3” would be collectively managed by users rather than a few powerful gatekeepers, or so the idea – making it easier for creatives, for example, to monetize the work they publish online.
Now the multi-billion dollar question: will this plan succeed?
Not everyone is convinced: Jürgen Geuter, a Berlin-based internet theorist known online under the pseudonym “aunt,” doubts a decentralized architecture alone is enough to return power to users. He pointed to cryptocurrencies, an area where a few companies are already making millions today developing the software needed to access the underlying decentralized network.
“Technology is never neutral,” said Geuter.
Web3 vs. the Metaverse?
To prevent the metaverse from being controlled by just a few influential players, experts say users should be able to communicate with each other no matter where they are in the metaverse or how they use it. That would also be a change from today’s internet, where apps are usually “walled gardens” that don’t allow users to send messages or money between different apps, for example.
“There’s an understanding that things need to change from web2,” acknowledged Meta’s Constanze Osei. She pointed to a new initiative announced in June that sees her company, along with other tech giants and standards bodies, discuss interoperability standards. But some major players, like US tech giant Apple, are noticeably absent from the effort.
The metaverse could grow to an $8 trillion market by 2025, according to estimates by investment bank Goldman Sachs
At the same time, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the world’s biggest tech giants are saying they want to invest in building a new internet architecture that could ultimately curb their market power.
And some observers warn that once the companies try to capitalize on that investment, some ideals of a decentralized Web3 architecture could end up as collateral damage.
“The corporate version of the metaverse will be an evolution of capitalism,” said Argentine lawyer Micaela Mantegna.
In addition, she added, the immersive nature of the metaverse could exacerbate some of the problems plaguing the web today, from misinformation to online harassment. Some users have already reported being sexually harassed in early versions of the metaverse.
And Mantegna warned that as technology evolves, the devices used to access the metaverse could at some point begin to monitor sensitive information, such as users’ brain activity.
The metaverse could become “the biggest surveillance system ever,” warns lawyer Micaela Mantegna
To protect such data and prevent surveillance on an unprecedented scale, governments and regulators need to come up with rules for the age of the metaverse, she said.
Initial efforts are underway: Earlier this week, the European Union announced a global regulatory initiative for next year.
But Mantegna said governments had to hurry to avoid the mistakes of today’s internet — a web that, as she put it, “was designed with good intentions, but poor implementation.”
“We don’t want the metaverse to become the bad sequel of the internet,” she said.
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