Why do so many people these days want to keep such strict levels of privacy? Why have we begun to distrust the internet and the people we meet on it? Is it because we have come to distrust the large organisations who represent so many of the online services we use today?
I recently had a meeting with a person in the Bitcoin sphere, while talking over Tor. One thing that caught my attention was that he did not want to tell me his name or anything about his personal life, even when we met in person. After the meeting, I kept thinking about it and I eventually realised that it wasn’t that he didn’t trust me, but rather he didn’t trust the environment in which we find ourselves today.
Why do so many people these days want to keep such strict levels of privacy? Why have we begun to distrust the internet and the people we meet on it? What happened to the ideals of freedom the internet was supposed to give us?
The web has got so big that if a company can control your access to the internet, if they can control which websites you go to, they have tremendous control over your life. If they can spy on what you’re doing they can understand a huge amount about you, and similarly if a government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages, they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power. – Tim Berners-Lee
The root of the problem, I believe, is not that people distrust one another, but that we have come to distrust the large organisations who represent so many of the online services we use today. We hear a continual barrage of stories about our trust in big organisations being misplaced, either through malice or sheer incompetence – such as selling or losing our data or simple manipulation of the facts to their own ends.
As a company grows and becomes established in a capitalist environment, its most rational option is to shrug off the liberal idealisms with which it was founded and become increasingly conservative, defined in the dictionary as: “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values”.
When businesses take a purely rational view to their constant search for profit, they begin to think only of their needs at the expense of others. If a person were to act like this, we would call them a psychopath. So let’s take a look at the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, considered by many as the diagnostic gold standard for psychopathy. Big business are not people, but I’ve highlighted the traits which can apply:
So it’s no wonder we don’t trust these big businesses. And sadly what should be a perfectly normal exchange between two people, is now mired by the actions of the large organisations we interact with on a daily basis. It’s not a price that many of us, myself included, feel comfortable with.
So is there anything we can do to reduce psychopathy in the capitalist environment?
The internet was heralded as a liberal haven that would increase connectivity, and people’s access to information, and indeed it has lived up to that. But the big corporations quickly followed us into the online world. The internet was simply not built to do some of the tasks it is expected to carry out today, whilst simultaneously preserving our freedom and security.
New technologies are now emerging, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid and the SAFE Network:
Solid (derived from “social linked data”) proposes a set of conventions and tools for building decentralised social applications, where the user’s data and content is not stored within the applications. Therefore, it can be modular and extensible, allowing seamlessly switching between apps and personal data storage servers. The project aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.
The SAFE Network aims to create a global network using advanced peer-to-peer technology, instead of relying on servers that are operated by companies and can be shut down or censored. Consequently, it is decentralized and doesn’t have a central authority that controls the content on the network. Users of the SAFE Network have full control over their data, and all content and services are encrypted and automatically distributed over the network, creating a secure data storage and communication platform.
The upshot of these technologies is services can now be built in a more distributed way without power having to reside with a central authority, services such as decentralised social websites, VoIP, and online auctions and shops can be run as an open source services rather than by a big multinational, a paradigm shift in the way we get our services online. Imagine being able to sit at any computer in a web cafe or simply borrow your friend’s mobile phone and with a single login your personalised operating system is loaded securely onto that device from the internet, all your services available instantly and securely anywhere.
These are certainly exciting technologies. If they work as advertised, they should (at least partially) provide further fixes to the privacy and trust issues we have been experiencing. No doubt they will also have some unexpected consequences, but we are very excited to see them being tested and launched. It certainly is a brave new world.
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