This blog was originally published as part of the British Council's Anyone Anywhere campaign.
As we reflect on 30 years of the World Wide Web in 2019, we must also take the opportunity to think about what we want the future of the web, and the internet more broadly, to look like.
The internet has undoubtedly brought us a lot of good over the past decades, but it is also becoming increasingly clear that its astronomical impact has not always led to the betterment of society.
The concentration of power over the internet – from the infrastructure level, up to who owns the data and the impact of digital platforms on our societies – in the hands of just a small number of companies, means few truly benefit from the growing digital economy. With ownership so centralised, the rest of us have little to say about many of the developments driving the internet today, and possibly even less about what we want its future to look like.
With newly emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, set to have an enormous influence on not just the internet, but all aspects of our societies and economies, it is important that all of us have a voice in how they are created and also used.
But with big corporations vying for control, we are often left feeling powerless, with technological innovation happening mostly to us rather than for us. We find ourselves stuck between two dominant narratives: the increasingly monopolistic tech giants in the United States and a newly emerging Chinese model, characterised by large surveillance systems operated from Beijing. But things don’t have to be this way.
Between Silicon Valley’s corporate-led internet and the Chinese model, where the government is in charge, can we come up with a third narrative, where citizens and communities are in control and can determine their own future?
For this kind of citizen-led alternative to the current dominant models driving the internet to be effective, we need to think about what kind of technologies and solutions might be important in the future and try to steer their development in a more positive direction. The internet today looks completely different from the internet even ten years ago, when the smartphone had only just emerged on the scene. Now imagine what it might look like 30 years from now! The rules of the current internet may have largely been written, but the rules of the future internet haven’t yet.
Perhaps more importantly, we also need to think about what kind of internet we want to see, and what values it should champion. We are currently missing a radical vision for a better internet that builds on the lessons from the past. Many now lament how we have forgotten about the ideas of the earliest internet pioneers, who called for a net that was open, free and that offered unbound opportunities for all. While no doubt these ideas were important, we should wonder if this perhaps techno-libertarian focus on openness and unfettered growth got us into the situation we are in to begin with. Now, three decades later, we need an amendment to the original ideas of the internet’s founding fathers, and to reflect on what we know today about the nature of the internet, that we did not know then.
Let’s bring the global internet community together to think about these fundamental questions, and act on this idea of a more human-centric and ethical alternative to the current models dominating the web.
We have an opportunity to do this through the Next Generation Internet initiative, the European Commission’s ambitious new flagship programme, which is seeking to build a more inclusive, resilient and democratic future internet by the end of the next decade. The NGI sets out how to create an internet underpinned by European values, such as openness, inclusivity, privacy, cooperation and protection of data, and focuses on championing initiatives that create solutions for the public good and put in place the kinds of regulations protecting our rights online that are currently sorely missing.
The Next Generation Internet initiative is a platform for everyone around the world to think about the kind of internet we want, and to help build the technologies and solutions we would need to get there. Join us in helping to create an internet that doesn’t only take into account the needs of those currently in charge, but also those of the next billion internet users that are set to get connected over the coming years. As part of the project we'll be launching a collection of radical new visions for a better future internet by leading voices and emerging thinkers from Europe and beyond. Be the first to find out when the collection launches by signing up to our newsletter and following us on Twitter.