Who owns the internet of the future? | Ordinary Things - Transcripts

March 14, 2023

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Who owns the internet of the future? | Ordinary Things


Ted Audio Collective. You're listening to Ted Talks Daily. I'm Elise Hugh. More of us in the world are spending more and more of our time on the internet. You may very well be listening to this on the internet. We know that it holds extraordinary promise, but also terrifying pitfalls. In his 2021 talk from Ted X Vienna, satirist and writer, Ordinary Things, addresses a key question as we head into whatever happens next. How we protect what makes the internet great and change what makes it scary. After a short break. Ted Talks Daily is brought to you by Capital One. At Capital One, technology makes direct deposits available up to two days sooner, improves fraud defense with machine learning and helps businesses manage data challenges in the cloud with Slingshot, the first solution from Capital One Software. Search technology at Capital One to learn more.

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price and coverage match limited by state law. Hi there, my name is Jody Avergan and I'm the host of a new podcast from Ted called Good Sport. It's my argument to you that we could use sports as a way of understanding the world around us and ourselves. Each episode will explore one idea or question from sports that I think unlocks something more universal. Next, I try to channel my inner sports debate, bro and find out that the way we argue about sports has kind of become the way we argue about everything. Be sure to check out Good Sport on Apple Podcasts,

Spotify or wherever you listen. The internet, as you know it, is under attack and it's more fragile than you might think. In the earlier, nerdier, screechier days of the net, the possibilities seemed endless. Information wants to be free, said the Web 1.0 pioneers. They envisioned a free internet where countless independent nodes would sustain a worldwide system of instant communication, entirely decentralized and therefore immune to central control or sabotage. Cut to today and I think they got it about half right. So much for independent, it now seems like the internet and its infrastructure are owned by the same three American dudes. In a world of mega platforms, attention-sapping algorithms and mass surveillance, we aren't wondering if information is free, we're wondering if we are. Now with all the doom and gloom aside, I should say I love the internet. It's where I spend most of my time. The best thing about my pandemic has been watching the rest of you get reduced to my level. It's accelerated the digital world's invasion of the material one.

That meeting that could have been an email is now an email. Malls are being shut by search bars, Fortnite tournaments are filling national stadiums and JPEGs are selling for the price of a da Vinci. Whatever happens next, we're all gonna be spending more time online. So how do we protect what makes it great and change what makes it terrifying? Well, first of all, I think we need an update. Internet access is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity for economic and individual development. For developing countries, increased access is a pathway out of poverty and enables smoother access to essential services like education and healthcare. As millions in the global South have logged on, the way the world accesses the internet has completely changed. In 2011, mobile internet use accounted for just 5% of total traffic. Today, it sits comfortably at 56%. Cheap phones and 4G have made the internet truly global.

But it also means that most of us only access it for a handful of applications. The internet is in all of your pockets and this is a TED talk, so it's probably on most of your wrists. Not mine, I've got a calculator. Keeps me humble. That's where we access it, but we wouldn't be able to if it weren't for unassuming, securely guarded buildings. Internet exchange points where bandwidth is actually produced. If these places cease to operate, then the internet is down and not even the sweatiest guy in your IT department can do anything about it. In 2011, the Egyptian government shut down one of the country's two main exchange points, the Ramses Exchange in Cairo. The internet was being used to organize protests as users were galvanized by sharing videos of ongoing violence in real time. For days, only a few government ministries and the stock market were connected to the internet. It was a threat to the crumbling regime and when the government did fall, the internet got the lion's share of the credit. Protests were organized with out-appointed leaders and with unprecedented speed.

And this is what the internet does that no other technology has ever come close to achieving. Decentralized mass organization. Since then, though, regimes have gotten a lot better at harnessing the internet's power for themselves. In 2019, both Iran and Iraq faced potentially destabilizing protest movements and both governments reacted by pulling the national router. These blackouts, though, are costly. Iraq's 11-day shutdown was estimated to cost their economy over two billion dollars. Iran's only lasted eight days, but the communication blackout was used to imprison organizers and murder protesters in their hundreds. Video of violence made its way online once access was restored, but by then, the protest movement had lost all momentum. This year, the frontline fight for the free internet has been in Myanmar. The military junta seized power in February and enacted nightly internet shutdowns to hinder protest and hide human rights abuses. Social media was banned for months, but activists have been successfully skirting restrictions, using VPNs to access restricted services and to document state violence. This is guerrilla cyber warfare in action, and it has real world casualties.

Mobile phones might be empowering the resistance, but they are also facilitating data-driven mass surveillance. Use the wrong platform, and the government can monitor your private messages and automatically delete them before they reach their intended recipient. To me, this is like halfway between the government censoring your mail and your thoughts. But it's not hopeless. Just before the junta took over, their arrival was documented in this viral video by a fitness influencer. That is the junta's top brass arriving in the background to depose the democratically elected leader. Now, I love this video. It's simultaneously absurd and tragic, which I feel like are the twin moods of the internet at the moment. But it also shows that even when the entire national infrastructure of the internet is controlled by a repressive regime, information still wants to be free. In the West, though, some of us are worried that information has gotten a bit too free. In some cases, fact-free. Disinformation and misinformation on social media are testing the boundaries of free speech.

The World Health Organization has called the pandemic an infodemic, with their official updates sharing a timeline with posts telling you to cure coronavirus by drinking bleach. In the UK, a conspiracy theory linking 5G to coronavirus spread so quickly that it led to over 30 arson attacks on self-towers in March 2020 alone. Absurd, tragic, once again, but it's easy to see there's a problem. Combating disinformation is tricky when mega platforms have become so enormous that they're nearly impossible to effectively moderate. When Facebook attempted to use machine learning to identify and remove dangerous posts, it often couldn't tell the difference between government guidance and posts meant to mimic it. Imperfect machines ultimately create imperfect machines. So this is a very human problem, and it obviously outdates the internet. There's always been demand for disinformation. It's based on what people want to believe. And where there is demand, there is opportunity to supply. Facebook themselves will tell you that most disinformation on their platform is financially incentivized. Malicious actors who own small websites crammed with ads who will pay to advertise on Facebook first to get the ball rolling.

Platforms might not be able to moderate everything we say, and I don't think they should, but they are more than capable of disrupting and regulating who pays them. Of course, mega platforms resist any regulation of their advertising because it's where they make most of their money. We all know they aren't selling us a service. They're selling access to our eyeballs. There's now a widespread distrust of the unregulated internet. In the UK, there has been popular public campaigns and subsequent government proposals to connect social media accounts to government-issued identification, getting rid of the anonymity and holding people accountable for all the naughty things they say online. This is well-meaning, but it's a fucking terrible idea. Marginalized groups and political dissidents rely on anonymity to protect their free speech, and having your government ID connected to your social media account would leave you extremely vulnerable to phishing scams and identity theft. I don't share my name online or anywhere publicly, not because I'm shy, but because I'm just curious to see how long I can keep it up. Gaining notoriety but retaining anonymity is a unique privilege of the information age, so why not take advantage of it? The internet is difficult to tame because it was built that way. This is John Postel, a man who once held the unofficial title of God of the internet.

The US government had contracted John to run the root authority of the domain name system, the closest thing the internet's infrastructure has to the top of its hierarchy. Basically, when you type in twitter.com or paymytaxes.gov, the root authority is what makes sure you get there. That's an oversimplification, but what you need to understand is that whoever controls the root authority controls access to every website and theoretically could delete all of them. So when the US government asked John to hand control over, he said no, and this one act of resistance would lead to the creation of ICANN, an international multi-stakeholder group that ensures the global internet can't be controlled by a single company or government. Naturally, some governments have resisted this. Notably, the Chinese government have been advocating for what they call internet sovereignty since 2013. This is the idea that each country has the right to control a separate version of the internet within their own borders. Of course, China's internet has worked this way for decades, but it's increasingly an attractive option to others. Iran booted up their own version in 2018, and Russia are quietly testing theirs out. And these national firewalls are used to restrict unwanted information, but their main priority is to crush organization that happens outside of a party political structure. And frankly, if it is disinformation that we're worried about, governments are the last group we should trust with regulating it. In 2018, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, claimed that the company deleted over 1.3 billion fake accounts in just six months.

A few hundred million of them were probably cooked up in the old St. Petersburg office of the Internet Research Agency, a private company owned by a close friend of Vladimir Putin and a state-funded troll army. Their job is to spread disinformation and sow discord online with a phantom army of puppet accounts and conspiracy theories. Their job isn't to bolster the argument of one side, but to inflame debate and make all sides look equally ridiculous. But this nihilistic genre of propaganda is incredibly weak when it's confronted with the sincerity of outsiders. That's why I think Alexei Navalny is the most interesting person on the internet today. If you don't know who he is, he's a lot of things. A dissident, lawyer, criminal, and YouTuber who took on the Russian government. His video on Putin's palace got 120 million views, which inspires professional awe and jealousy in me. And aside from some high-budget drone shots, there is very little new information in this video. It's a compilation of previously available sources, sometimes decades-old information. But unlike these old sources, this video reached 25 million people in 24 hours and delivered this information in an exciting, hilarious, and inclusive way.

After a surviving assassination attempt and being sentenced to a penal colony, Navalny is still leading resistance online. The Kremlin have duly blocked access to this video and have blocked access to smart voting websites, which Navalny has been propagating. We might be frightened of mega-platforms, but they are empowering individuals and giving outsiders an audience that dwarfs the one offered by legacy media establishments that dominated the information market during the last century. And I know it feels like we're spending our lives flicking between the same four apps, and that's because we are. Around 80% of internet traffic is captured by only a handful of companies, and we're spending progressively more time with them. Thanks to lockdown and homeworking, internet use in the UK doubled in just one year. And all of those Netflix binges are putting a strain on the internet's infrastructure. This is a hyperscale data center. There's around 600 of them worldwide, and over half of them are owned by either Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or Apple. The number of these computer cabinet labyrinths has doubled in the last five years to keep up with our ever-increasing demand. And this has upset internet service providers who claim that these bandwidth-hogging companies aren't paying their fair share. And maybe they aren't.

And while I do think it is concerning that so few companies control so much of the internet, I don't think their reign is assured. Internal projections at Facebook show that teenagers are abandoning their platform in their droves, so much so that their American user base could decrease by up to 45% in two years. I'm not saying that the problem will solve itself. These platforms are powerful, but only in proportion to the time and attention that we give them. It's easy to forget that the internet is still in its infancy, and new competitors are gathering in every corner. Then there are competitors like the Super Apps, and these apps are interesting. They're mobile only, mostly an Asian phenomenon so far. They are applications that position themselves as a one-stop shop for all your internet-based needs. Singapore has grab, Indonesia has go-to, but by far the most popular is China's WeChat. With over 1.3 billion active daily users, WeChat has integrated itself into the fabric of normal social life in China. It's your driver's license, your debit card, and your phone. It's where you pay your landlord, book flights, hotels, and doctor's appointments.

It has supercharged China's journey towards a cashless society, replacing coins with QR codes, with even the homeless forced to upgrade. And it is a brilliant tool. It has bought older generations and the industrial working class online and given them easier access to essential services. But it also conveniently bundles up all of your personal data, private messages, and physical whereabouts for a government with backdoor access. The surveillance enabled by these super apps is threatening to turn privacy into a relic of the 20th century, because when there's only one platform, there's nowhere left to hide. The internet was built to be plural, to exist nowhere in particular, and to be accessible everywhere. Internet culture is global culture, arguably the first ever instance of it, and we must ensure that everyone has equal access. No one in this room knows what the internet will look like in 10, 50, or 100 years, but we can be damn sure it will be here. It's the greatest invention of all of our lifetimes, and we must ensure that it reflects the best of us. It must be open, inquiring, cooperative, and suspicious of authority.

Thank you. RX.