The internet is going to hell and its creators want your help fixing it

Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and other identify lots of problems, few solutions

PCI conference
On stage Vint Cerf, Wendy Hall, Tim Berners-Lee. Photo credit: Constellation Research

If ever there was doubt that 2018 is the year of fear, it was confirmed by a panel discussion involving the two men that are credited with inventing the internet and the world wide web.

Co-inventor of the internet protocols TCP/IP Vint Cerf and inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee have spent the past 20 years talking in pragmatic but highly optimistic tones about the global networks they helped give birth to.

Today, at the Our People-Centered Digital Future conference in San Jose, USA, the tone was very different. "It's a time of worry, a time of fear," Berners-Lee told attendees who range from Silicon Valleyites to policymakers to government folk. "We need to work really hard together to fix it; we've got to get to where the internet is a net benefit to humanity."

Cerf was also uncharacteristically down. "We may be building a fragile, brittle future," he warned the audience, asking: "What happens when we fail?"

It wasn't just them, either. UK-based University of Southampton computer science prof and practical optimist Wendy Hall despaired about "what is happening to our children and to ourselves." She pointed to the impact and growing influence of China and Russia on our lives, highlighting their authoritarian impulses.

She noted a range of social and internet ills, from bullying and trolling to the sale of private data, as well as attacks on democracy itself. And even former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves – a popular invitee to California tech conferences because of his ability to turn positive tech thought into real government changes – was downhearted.

"Liberal democracies are under threat in a way that they have not been before," he despaired, before suggesting that the nature of Western governance may need to change in the face of the manipulation of elections from Russia and others.

He warned that first-past-the-post elections and the electoral college may be weaknesses, not strengths, in our current era, adding: "I'm not sure anonymity and democracy are completely compatible."

And what do we do?

And if all that wasn't worrying enough, none of these long-standing leaders had much in the way of good suggestions for what to do about the mess we find ourselves in, beyond asking others to talk to one another and figure it out.

All agree on one thing however: Right now there is a serious battle for heart and minds, the future of the internet and global society itself. Every speaker noted competing visions from three main sources: The US, Europe and China.

Ilves noted that the "Silicon Valley free for all" that the US represents – with limited or no regulation – is not doing so great. He currently lives in Silicon Valley, within 10 miles of the headquarters of Facebook, Google, Tesla, LinkedIn, Palantir but when he wanted a driving license he noted that he had to "stand in line for three days at the DMV." All those wonderful tech giant benefits only stretch so far.

China is painted as a surveillance-heavy, controlling influence but one that has been persistently effective. Europe has put privacy at the heart of its approach – but with what impact on its economy?

What's more, today it is official that half of the world is now online. Referred repeatedly to as our "50-50 moment" this should be a source of excitement but instead the panelists are worried and warn about what kind of internet the rest of the world will discover when they finally get online.

Will it be the glorious vision of information for all that the early internet pioneers foresaw, or will it be the controlled world of government surveillance and private data sold by corporations to advertisers?

The answer, in part, comes from the day: December 10.

Organizer of the conference, Ray Wang confessed that today was the "worst possible day" to arrange a conference: a Monday, in December, in California. It's a dead-zone for conferences.

But this one – organized by the People–Centered Internet (PCI) organization – specifically chose December 10, 2018 because it is 70 years since the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in Paris.

Digital human rights

The PCI had been thinking about the need for a conference to address the fact that people increasingly see tech as a threat and no longer as a pure force for good. The one idea that everyone on the organization's board got excited about, Wang told us, was the question: "What will human rights look like in a digital era?"

And an official from the United Nations Human Rights office, senior officer Scott Campbell, was on hand to talk about that seminal document and its continued – perhaps enlarged - importance in 2018 and beyond.

Campbell reminded the audience the context for the declaration: The world had just been through a brutal global war where tens of millions of people had died. We'd had the Holocaust, hate speech, demagoguery, disinformation and underlying it all economic disparity and the Great Depression.

And after all that carnage, the world's leaders came together and decided they had to come up with some kind of document that would help prevent it all from happening again. "Add fake news and the internet and we have 2018," said Campbell.

Of course, things are not as bad as in 1948 but there is a palpable sense that we could be heading in that direction and folk are looking around for lessons and footholds from the past. The Declaration of Human Rights can "provide inspiration" for what needs to be done to avoid repeating the past, Campbell argued.

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He also revealed that the UN Human Rights office is "planning to come to Silicon Valley" in part to ensure that "the human rights approach is baked in" to all new services, business models and products.

Sunlight

Of course, amid all the doom and gloom, this is still Silicon Valley. Even in December, the sun is shining through the windows of the Fairmont San Jose. And with that the conference organizers have a plan.

"Don't worry," Ray Wang tells us. "In the afternoon, we will have suggestions where people will make concrete proposals for how to fix things. And this evening, we will have calls to action."

This evening at a gala event, the great and the good of the policy, technical and business worlds will be encouraged to act on what they've heard, put forward ideas and, just as importantly, put up money for a series of MacArthur-style grants, called challenge grants.

Those grants will literally put everyone's money where their mouth is and fund people who will focus on finding ways to fix the problems that everyone has spend the whole day complaining about. The world and the internet may be going to hell but the network's pioneers are damned if they're not going to put up a fight. ®

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