Is the web neutral? Three views on the structure of the internet

By Juan Ortiz Freuler

Does the web produce particular outcomes because of how it is built, or does it merely reflect society?

We have seen the power of the web manifest itself in many positive ways. It has allowed citizens to mobilize in authoritarian states and in stable democracies alike. By collapsing physical space and giving access to global communication to the many, it is particularly effective in allowing groups to share their stories, explore their identities and uncover uncomfortable truths about power dynamics. Thus it can enable disadvantaged groups to reframe what was previously perceived as an isolated issue into a systemic problem.

More recently, however, the negative side of the impact of global connectivity – the spread of false information and the building of ‘information bubbles’ – have dominated the news. People’s interpretation of the breadth of its impact and root causes vary depending on where they stand – and in particular on whether they consider the web fundamentally neutral or structured to produce particular outcomes.

There seem to be three competing camps in the debate about the web: the ‘denialists’, the ‘narrativists’ and the ‘architecturalists’.

The denialists, who include many Western media analysts who covered the Arab Spring as well as activists on both the left and right who rely on the web to engage with their following, deny the web is responsible for the problems we see today. They believe that the web is as neutral as a mirror and that if people do not like what the web is producing, they should look at the deep inequality that is pervasive across their societies.

They say that in a networked world, where people can easily coordinate, tolerance for injustice is lower and our unjust societies are no longer sustainable. In the same way that the printing press is considered to have fuelled the collapse of feudalism, today’s information highway is simply making injustices apparent. Social tensions are not just warranted but can only be resolved through political reform. The web allows people to come together and fight injustice. In short, their message is that we should fix injustice, not the web.

The narrativists, who include many in the traditional mainstream media, claim social cooperation requires a shared narrative and that the web – where thousands of voices are juxtaposed in a chaotic fashion – undermines this goal. They point to the way that micro-targeting of political adverts allows political candidates to spread different, and often contradictory, messages to different people.

Narrativists also emphasize that the seamless coordination enabled by the web has undermined traditional power brokers, such as political parties and trade unions, and nurtured thousands of narrow interest groups. In the past, they argue, traditional power brokers would work towards establishing a platform that could consistently arrange a myriad of ideas and demands.

Today, the web is fuelling a chaotic system of issue politics, where leaders can promise to cater to a wide range of interest groups without explaining how each promise fits within a broader framework of thought. In short their message is that, far from bringing people together, the web allows them to isolate themselves into smaller groups of like-minded people.

The architecturalists claim that the web is not a fixed structure and that what is fueling today’s anxieties can be traced to relatively recent developments in the architecture of the web. They argue that the original design of the web created incentives for people to pay attention to the quality of the content they created and shared. In the early days of the web, there were no gatekeepers and an open marketplace of ideas organically tended to promote good over bad content.

In contrast, the ad-based revenue model pursued by many modern tech giants incentivizes engagement, and with it, content that is explosive, but not necessarily of good quality. Furthermore, whereas the original system was non-hierarchical, decentralized and required active users, a handful of companies now operate as gatekeepers and they funnel content through algorithms to users who are being pushed into passivity. Whereas before users would click-by-click navigate the open web, users are now placed behind ‘walled gardens’ where they scroll through reams of content curated for them by proprietary algorithms.

Whereas in the decentralized system problems were local, problems in centralized systems spread like wildfire. Furthermore, the predominant ad-based revenue model makes these problems look more like a feature of the system than a bug. Too much power is in too few hands and the ad-based revenue model is making these gatekeepers terrible managers. Many architecturalists believe blockchain technologies can help replace many of these intermediaries that control the web today. In short, their message is: ‘re-decentralize’ the web.

Each of the three camps has a point. The radical changes affecting our societies call for a new social contract. But where do we start? A new social contract, if it is to be legitimate, must be the result of a robust public debate – and proper debate requires information. The problem is that private companies manage the key infrastructure – and most experts in the field are running this infrastructure after having signed non-disclosure agreements. Information scarcity is therefore not just the natural consequence of the web’s novelty, it is created artificially and for strategic purposes. Information is power – and it is unlikely to be disclosed voluntarily. The key data need to be made available.

When government became too complex for the average citizen to navigate, ombuds offices were born. As an independent institution of government, ombuds were given the duty (and corresponding powers) to protect people’s rights from what was being perceived as an increasingly opaque and often unresponsive state apparatus. The current situation requires exploring a similarly bold institutional reform and ensuring the data needed to inform public debate is available.

The web is set to be the battleground of this era and there is a growing gap between where power lies and where the institutions that seek to keep it accountable to the people operate. If our current institutions fail to ensure this technological revolution puts people first, these institutions will sooner or later be rendered irrelevant.

Juan Ortiz Freuler Web Foundation

Policy fellow at the Web Foundation and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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