It's time to build a new and democratic Internet
Blockchain has the potential to build trust in the Net of the future.
The Internet is facing a crisis of values. It's a muddled world of truths, half-truths and fake news. With half-truths, it gets even more complicated and harder to deflect. A security breach may have occurred at a bank in the December of 2012. Suddenly in 2019, the old news about the incident starts to float on social media. It intrigues and angers people who share it generously. While technically the incident did take place, the timing of the content's resurfacing insinuates that it just occurred. The bank may have taken all the necessary precautions in the meantime and was about to launch its services in a new country, but this half-truth could derail its plans.
We have come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee engineered the World Wide Web. What started out as a platform for an exchange of information has become a digital universe that pretty much mirrors our physical world. If our physical world is cluttered, so is the digital world. It's like a noisy fish market where paid, free, and concocted information is swirling around in a giant nebulous digital cloud.
While we nurse our insatiable hunger for information, we feel the intolerable burden of it all. Invasion of privacy and loss of personal data is only just reaching prime time.
At the core, people take liberties such as fake news because there is no traceability and accountability. We don't know who created the false information in the first place. We also have no mechanism to punish them. There is a direct correlation between anonymity and crime. Crime rates are higher in cities where urban anonymity and the size of the cities, make it harder to enforce punishments. This is precisely what happens online.
Yet if we take anonymity out of the Internet altogether, we curtail a significant degree of freedom. Studies have shown that anonymity can make people aggressive and abusive, but it also allows some people to be candid and helpful.
We cannot heavily regulate the Internet because it will destroy the Internet's spontaneity. If we stifle people's ability to share information, we essentially throw the baby out with the bathtub. Online freedom will disappear and so will the Millennials.
Can we press the reset button on the Internet we know today? Can we build an entirely new Internet? Can we reimagine the Internet on a clean slate - an Internet that has the checks and balances for traceability?
We don't need to look far to find the one technology that touts traceability and by extension accountability. It's called Blockchain. If the Internet's underlying fabric is Blockchain, then Internet could be truly decentralised. Every user will be a node in the network.
At the moment, the reins of the Internet are in the hands of Big Tech. Many of them decide what we watch and read. With the overwhelming load of information, we find it difficult to distinguish between information that we are looking for and information that is thrust on us. Because Blockchain's ledger is distributed, anyone on the network can look it up to know the 'world state'. Why is it so secure? Its append-only data structure contains data records and transactions that are cryptographically linked. Perfect for information creation and sharing.
We need an Internet that is robust enough to protect our privacy. Blockchain will ensure that if someone is accessing our personal data, we will know. If someone is sharing our personal data, we will know. The cryptographically fortified ledger of transactions will be accessible for everyone to see. The transactions cannot be tampered with. Anyone can find out about the creator of any content. More importantly, if we do not want to share our personal data, the smart contract of the Blockchain will enforce it.
While the industry is still coming to terms with the full potential of Blockchain, the latter has the promise to build trust in the Internet of the future, in which digital identities will be cast in stone and copyright could be protected through digital tokens. The main issue with Blockchain that is yet to be resolved is scalability, but we will get there. If it is not Blockchain then it will be something else, but we definitely need to have traceability on the Internet.
As the final frontiers of humankind jump onto the Internet bandwagon, the problem of plenty will continue to grow exponentially. Too much information that is suspect or promotional or malicious is shaping our world view. In this version of the Internet, trying to unclutter our digital lives is nearly impossible. We simply have to turn off mobile data on our laptops, phones, and watches. Yet the SMSes will relentlessly stream into our consciousness.
There are initiatives such as EU's ambitious Next Generation Internet Initiative that is funding research on a more inclusive, democratic, and resilient Internet. Can we create a parallel digital universe that we can escape to? Where perhaps we can look up the source of any information just as easily as we do on our shirt collars. In the Internet of the future, the devil is in the source.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies
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