In many ways, the Internet has been the ultimate human experiment in decentralized systems architecture. Large-scale systems can be thought of as a collection of dynamic processes, protocols, and implementation mechanisms that are designed to yield certain outputs or to perform certain tasks. For the Internet, these processes rely on a combination of hardware systems – data servers, Internet cables, computers and mobile devices – and software systems – which include the operating systems running on your computers and devices, and software services like email, online newsfeeds, social media, and others. While the genesis of the Internet may be traced to the first wide-area packet-switched network from the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the development of the global “system” we now think of as the Internet progressed in a highly decentralized manner, with various developers contributing bits and bytes to the digital infrastructure of the world wide web.
Concurrent to the development of the Internet was the motivation of to capitalize on this new digital realm. The Internet provided innovative ways to exchange goods and services. Early Internet businesses explored ways to bring brick and mortar businesses into the digital realm. Companies like Amazon innovated ways to digitize books and magazines, news agencies started selling subscriptions online, e-commerce platforms emerged to match buyers and sellers of products, and developers built businesses out of web design and software tools to help power these online commerce.
But selling goods and services online required ways for businesses to communicate with customers and to push products. And it wasn’t long before digital storefronts started advertising to consumers online. Digital advertising has invited the best and worst of human innovation into the digital commons. At best, digital ads have amplified marketing reach beyond anything we ever experienced before, and has played a critical role in supporting the growth of new industries and business models. But at the same time, digital advertising has blurred the lines between ‘consumer’ and ‘product’.
Today, so may platforms see their largest revenue streams coming not from the selling of goods and services, but from the collection and analysis of data. Your data. My data. Everyone’s data. For me, it was the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma that really connected the dots in my mind and made me realize how easy it is for each of us to stop being consumers and start being products. Here are a few hair raising quotes from the film:
“We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.” – Justin Rosenstein, former engineer Facebook and Google, co-founder of Asana
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product.” – Jaron Lainer, founding father of Virtual Reality Computer Scientist
“It’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.” – Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard University professor
“There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software.” — Edward Tufte
We’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context with the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation.” — Jaron Lainer, computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer
One reading of where we are at this moment in time with the Internet is as follows: we created a digital realm where people could connect in a digital commons to exchange ideas, conduct business, and share cat videos, but now it has turned into a laboratory where we are the test subjects for the very products being sold to each other. The problems of identity theft, ransomeware, and data breaches have become so widespread that finally governments and advocacy groups around the world are fighting back. And that means combatting the very digital advertising infrastructure we built to power the age of social media and e-commerce.
A recent article in the New York Times article by Brian Chen, called The Battle for Digital Privacy Is Reshaping the Internet noted, “More than 20 years ago, the internet drove an upheaval in the advertising industry….Now that system, which ballooned into a $350 billion digital ad industry, is being dismantled. Driven by online privacy fears, Apple and Google have started revamping the rules around online data collection.”
Actions from Silicon Valley behemoths to reorient their core data systems and business models to accommodate privacy laws will not be an easy task, and it will not happen quickly. Most of this comes in response to strict privacy laws like the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in the United States. Other countries are following suit, laying the groundwork for significant global regulation in trafficking personal information online. The challenge for businesses that run on analysis and processing of what their consumers like and want to buy is…how to continue doing business in a way that respects consumer privacy and complies with these new laws?
In order to implement data privacy protections businesses will have to rethink and redesign their business models from start to finish: how businesses collect information on consumers, where they store it, what analytical and customer management tools they use, and who has access to consumer information. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has a very broad definition of data privacy and what constitutes “sale” of data. Moreover, it empowers consumers to request detailed information from businesses on what they have used their information for, and includes rights to opt-out. In most cases, selling or sharing data now requires consumer consent, and failure to comply carries hefty fines.
Reorienting businesses to comply with data privacy regulations carries huge macro implications for the way business is conducted online. Privacy is likely to completely reshape the Internet and the global digital commons as we know it in the years and decades ahead. The question now is, if personal information is being replaced as the key commodity bought, traded, and sold on the Internet what will replace it?