Considering the future of the web

August 6, 2018 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Does the web have a future? I was listening to the talks from the Decentralized Web Summit recently. A couple of them were mildly interesting, including the one about legal aspects. Mostly though it wasn't all that enlightening and there was a big cryptocurrency presence with a highly technocratic "brogrammer" narrative.

What this and other factors indicate to me is that the web is in trouble, and not just because of "Russians". The Russia paranoia in the US and also frequently mentioned at the summit has reached ludicrous levels, such that every bad thing on the internet now seems to be blamed on Russia. I think it's a sign that the political system is weak and disintegrating and looking for someone else to blame. Replacing analysis with magical realism.

But there are other problems. The main browsers which most people use seem to be inextricably entwined with a Surveillance Capital business model. They're increasingly supporting centralised schemes. Only Beaker Browser, based on Chromium, seems to be going in a decentralized direction.

What might happen if current trends continue?

In a business as usual scenario in which you just assume that a few giant companies will try to maximize their profit by fully controlling end users I have a few predictions:

  • Common internet devices will have no operating system. Instead they will have a ROM delivering screen display functionality and a network stack with integrated DRM. It will not be possible to root your phone or install an alternative image.
  • Running Free Software on a laptop will be something that only people using very expensive open hardware designs manufactured in small quantities can do. All other laptops will have a fully locked down boot process which isn't end user modifiable.
  • Only licensed and regulated social networks will be permitted. No ordinary user will be allowed to run one without risking jail time. An official registry of licensed site operators will be set up by every government. The license fees will be high enough to exclude most of the population.
  • While "hackers" of a certain kind were somewhat celebrated during the Web 2.0 phase in future they will return to being persona non grata. Not just people doing crimes with computers, but in the broad sense of the term as anyone trying to customize their computing experience outside of corporate limits or run their own systems outside of the official licensing system.
  • Systems like TOR won't be beaten but will be rendered sufficiently impractical by ubiquitous blocking of known nodes that almost nobody will be able to use it.
  • The main technology companies will implement something like a virtual decentralized layer on top of their centralized "serverless" system. This will give the illusion of differing communities having varying degrees of "autonomy" and "privacy", while all still being under centralized control. This, and not AI, will be the solution to the moderation problem. Leaders of the various sub-communities will be individuals who are centrally appointed and operate under government license, which can be revoked at any time should any of them decide to "go native".
  • Systems like Aadhar will be rolled out in every country. Aadhar was just a trial run for the far more restrictive identity systems which followed.

This is a darker future. We're already in the dark future of the web compared to its origins in the 1990s. I think this kind of future is preventable if enough people choose to do something else and don't support restrictive laws or regulations.

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The blog of Bob Mottram, a Free Software hacker and maintainer of the Freedombone project.

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