Thinking about regulating the online space?

Focus on decentralizing power…

This piece was originally published as a three-part series in Open Democracy (1, 2, 3). Edited for clarity. Expanded PDF version (2021) available at SSRN

Part I — Who’s to blame? The internet on the defendant’s bench

The internet used to be seen as a catalyst of positive social change. Yet we rarely hear these claims anymore, at least in Europe and the US.

Fig. 1 — A Switchboard (Via AP Photo)
Fig. 2 ArpaNet 1971 — Adapted from Red Hat Linux Test Page
Adapted from Baran (1969)

Part II — The present and future of a centralized internet

In the previous part I argued that the growing concerns regarding the internet have many causes: from underlying social problems, to bad science; from bad incentive structures put in place by big platforms, to the ongoing process of centralization that magnifies the impact of any problem that might arise.

Constant evolution

How does centralization take place? The web is always and only becoming. It’s in constant evolution. Each link that is made, each server that is set up is part of this process.

old media — >consumer

new information brokers also harvest a LOT of real-time data about the information recipients, creating a two-way stream of information:

new media <— >user

New media can leverage the collected data to smartly nudge users to one piece of content instead of others, for example.

Intermediation continues to grow in breadth and depth, fueling the process of web centralization

Intermediation is not in itself a bad thing. Search engines, for example, have become a key ally in enabling the web to achieve scale by helping users find relevant information in the ever-growing web of content. But it can also have problematic effects.

Fig. 4The Mechanics of centralization (CC-BY Juan Ortiz Freuler)

The perils of centralization: a look into the future

New technological developments — such as smart assistants, augmented and virtual reality — will likely increase the breadth and depth of intermediation over the next decade. This, in turn, threatens to accelerate and further entrench the process of centralization.

GIF by nomalles
Fig. 5 The evolution of information retrieval (CC-BY Juan Ortiz Freuler)

Smart assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa are making agreements with companies that produce smart devices (cars, refrigerators, thermostats, etc) . Through these agreements, smart assistants will allow users to control their whole swarm of smart objects more easily. And the companies behind the smart assistant will increase the quantity and quality of data they have about users.

Developments in technologies such as AR and VR are capable of further isolating people into curated silo-worlds, where information flows are managed by the owners of these algorithms.

Fig. 6 Platform’s ever-increasing control over information flows

Intermediation in person-to-person communications

Fig 7 — A model of communications inspired by Castells (2009) (CC- BY @Juanof9)

It is fundamental that any and all parties who control these channels respect the integrity of the message that is being delivered.

Centralization, which leaves communication channels under the control of a handful of actors, could effectively limit parties from exchanging certain signifiers (symbols, such as words).

Fig. 8 Screenshot: George Costanza, Seinfeld.

The process of constructing meaning is deeply political.

Reiterated associations between latinx and negative frames can, over time, lead to the triggering of negative mental responses to the mere reference to Latinx, even when the negative frame itself is not present. If so, the term has been effectively rooted onto the negative frame. As from that moment, the negativity has become part of its meaning.

A centralized web of content, where the few define which frames should be applied and distributed, becomes a liability.

Let’s consider how the process of centralization might play out 20 years from now…

Part III — Focus on re-decentralizing Power!

(Originally published March 20, 2018)

Many claim the internet is broken… The social contract is what’s broken.

The internet, with its capacity to facilitate communication, aggregate opinion, and coordinate people by the thousands in real time, is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal to solve the social issues at hand. The internet has made it easier for women to coordinate around the #MeToo movement, and enabled the growth of Black Lives Matter, to mention two recent examples. Rape, misogyny and racially targeted police violence are not new issues, but the internet provided a platform for these covered-up conversations to scale.

how can we ensure the internet will enable us, the citizens, to share ideas freely, coordinate around common goals, and act in defense of our rights and interests?

How can we ensure these protections will be effective even in scenarios where the powers-that-be feel profoundly challenged by the people’s capacity to coordinate en masse?

If we accept that the internet has become a key tool for politics in this broad sense of the term, we can see the internet is indeed facing a problem. A problem that is often neglected for being less tangible, but that underlies much of what concerns the public. A problem that not only reflects but can reinforce current social problems, and frustrate the goal of ensuring meaningful political participation: centralization.

Centralization and decentralization

I use the term centralization broadly, to refer to the process through which intermediaries have reshaped the internet and the web, placing themselves as gatekeepers of information. The “move fast and break things” ethos, which unleashed bold innovation a decade ago, has become deeply problematic. Each ‘mistake’ on the centralized internet of today causes harm to thousands if not millions.

We the people cannot afford the risks centralization entails to the internet of tomorrow, and its ability to deliver social change.

Decentralization is about creating barricades to this process, so that power remains distributed across the network. Decentralization is about ensuring that every message and every idea will be granted a fair shot in the digital public square.

The Neutrality Pyramid

We need to re-state the physical existence of intermediaries and their power to the broader public. The pyramid shows some of the key layers in which gate-keeping is being exercised today. It highlights the types of actors that, at each layer, can affect the people’s ability to share ideas and produce meaningful political change tomorrow.

Fig. 9 Net Neutrality’s virtuous circle (CC — BY @Juanof9)

Taking action

Fig 10 — The neutrality Pyramid (CC-BY @juanof9)
  1. Observing behaviors within each layer: As a community we need to promote enforceable rules to ensure that each level of the pyramid will be kept from abusing its intermediary or market powers to stifle competition within its layer.
  2. Observing dynamics between layers: As a community we need to ensure each intermediary stays within its segment of the pyramid, ruling out any further vertical integration, and promoting the re-fragmentation of companies that have integrated across these layers over the past decades. Given the difficulty to monitor and react to cases of discrimination before they destroy a market or inhibit a conversation, fragmenting these companies seems like a reasonable way of weakening or eliminating their incentives to breach the neutrality rules.

Silos are socially inefficient but continue to exist because they allow big companies to ensure we don’t leave their walled gardens.

The battle to ensure the internet remains a tool for citizens to build a more just society will be our constant companion throughout the next decade. The battle is uphill. With each day that goes by without a thorough debate regarding our rights our chances get slimmer.

Justice & participation. ICTs & Data. Affiliate @BKCHarvard. Alumni: @oiiOxford & @blavatnikSchool . Chevening Scholar. Views=personal. Here-> open discussion.

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