Are we on the brink of another internet revolution? According to technology experts gathered in Berlin for a conference organized by digital learning platform ada, we.
The new technology could overhaul the internet as we know it over the next decade, they said — both in terms of how it’s built and how it looks.
On a technical level, tech idealists hope that blockchain technology will help build a new decentralized architecture at the core of the internet. In this new “web3” era, not a few tech giants will control users’ data, privacy and what they create online.
“It reinvents how the internet is built in the background,” said Portuguese author Shermin Voshmgir. “It’s a complete paradigm shift.”
Meanwhile, companies around the world are working on technology to change the way we navigate the web.
In October 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would rebrand the tech behemoth as “Meta.”
Their vision: Instead of browsing through websites or apps, people will soon be walking virtually through a three-dimensional version of the web called the “metaverse”—a digital landscape where users can work, buy things, or meet friends. physical and digital realities merge.
“This will be the gateway to the internet, so to speak,” said Constanze Osei, who heads society and innovation policy efforts for Germany, Austria and Switzerland at Meta, the US tech giant formerly known as Facebook.
But as companies like it spend billions developing the next generation of the Internet, digital rights advocates warn that firms will eventually want to cash in on their investments, which could hamper efforts to give users more power over their digital identities.
“Metaverse could become the most invasive surveillance system ever created,” said Micaela Mantegna, an Argentinian lawyer and digital rights researcher.
The evolution of the Internet
To understand where the next generation of the Internet might go wrong, it helps to look at how we got here.
As early as the 1960s, researchers began connecting computers around the world. But by the 1990s, the world wide web and the invention of web browsers made the web accessible to anyone with access to the internet.
Since then, the Internet has elevated every aspect of society, from the way people do business to how they find information or interact with each other.
“Thanks to the Internet, everything has changed,” said Miriam Meckel, CEO of Ada and professor of corporate communications at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. “And the Internet itself has changed.”
In the early days of the Internet, people viewed the Internet from their desktop computers and mainly navigated through search engines. This changed in the 2000s with the advent of social media and the mobile internet, giving rise to the online world as we know it today.
At the heart of this “web2” are Meta’s online platforms such as Facebook and Instagram or, more recently, messaging services such as Telegram.
These platforms have helped dissidents in authoritarian regimes organize protests or give voice to marginalized groups. But revelations such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 have shown that they are also being used to spread hate, promote 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 to users
To give power back to individuals and communities, people like author Shermin Voshmgir have proposed rebuilding the internet with decentralized public blockchains—databases searchable by anyone and shared on computers around the world.
Such a “web3” would be run collectively by users rather than a few powerful gatekeepers, the idea goes – for example, making it easier for creatives to monetize the work they publish online.
Now the multi-billion dollar question: Will this plan succeed?
Not everyone is convinced: Berlin-based internet theorist Jürgen Geuter, who goes by the internet nickname “tante,” doubts that decentralized architecture alone is enough to bring power back to users. He pointed to cryptocurrencies, an area where several companies are making millions today developing the software needed to access the main decentralized network.
“Technology is never neutral,” Geuter said.
Metaverse vs. Web3?
To prevent the metaverse from being controlled by just a few influential players, experts say users should be able to interact with each other regardless of where the metaverse is and how they use it. This would be a change from today’s internet, where apps are mostly “walled gardens” that don’t allow users to send messages or money between different apps, for example.
Meta’s Constanze Osei admitted that “there is a sense from web2 that things need to change”. He pointed to a new initiative announced in June, where he and his company want to discuss interoperability standards with other tech giants and standards-setting bodies. But some major players, such as US tech giant Apple, are not particularly involved in these efforts.
According to the calculations of the investment bank Goldman Sachs, the metaverse could become an 8 trillion dollar market by 2025.
At the same time, there is a certain irony in the fact that the world’s biggest technology giants are finally saying that they want to invest in building a new internet architecture that could limit their market power.
Some observers warn that some of the ideals of the decentralized web3 architecture could become collateral damage as companies try to capitalize on this investment.
“The corporate version of the Metaverse will be the evolution of capitalism,” said Argentinian lawyer Micaela Mantegna.
What’s more, he added, the immersive nature of the metaverse could exacerbate some of the problems plaguing today’s web2, from misinformation to online harassment. Some users have already reported that they were sexually harassed in the first versions of the metaverse.
And Mantegna warned that as technology develops, the devices used to access the metaverse could someday start tracking sensitive data, such as users’ brain activity.
Lawyer Micaela Mantegna warns that the metaverse could be “the biggest surveillance system ever”.
To protect such data and prevent surveillance on an unprecedented scale, governments and regulators need to develop rules for the age of the metaverse, he said.
First efforts are underway: Earlier this week, the European Union announced a global regulatory initiative for next year.
But Mantegna said governments need to hurry to avoid the mistakes of today’s internet — a web that he says is “well-intentioned but poorly implemented.”
“We don’t want the metaverse to become a bad continuation of the internet,” he said.
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