Improving the future of the Internet

Today, the web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank – and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.

There will be 2.6 billion connected devices by 2020. By 2017, about 40% of those connected devices within smart cities will be inside smart homes.

The UK government’s plans to invest £40m to develop applications for IoT and smart cities as part of the 2015 budget has sparked much debate around whether this investment is too little too late or if it’s a waste of budget, how essential it really is and how much can be achieved with it. The bottom line is that there is a definite demand in the space and change is inevitable; but are we ready for such a change?

The web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunities for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.

Connection speeds gradually increase, Wi-Fi availability ratchets up, new devices influence designs, and consumer trends shape functionality, so that somehow, in about the last 15 years, we’ve gone from a slow, dial-up, boxy version of the Internet to one that can be accessed at incredible speeds from pretty much anywhere. It’s completely revolutionized the marketing industry (among others), introducing strategies that never existed before and making a number of older ones obsolete.

The vast majority of online content creators fund their work with advertising. That means they want the ads that run on their sites to be compelling, useful and engaging—ones that people actually want to see and interact with. But the reality is, it’s far too common that people encounter annoying, intrusive ads on the web—like the kind that blare music unexpectedly, or force you to wait 10 seconds before you can see the content on the page.

Today, the Coalition for Better Ads announced that it is expanding their initial Better Ads Standards beyond North America and Europe to cover all countries, worldwide. Following the Coalition’s lead, beginning July 9, 2019, Chrome will expand its user protections and stop showing all ads on sites in any country that repeatedly display these disruptive ads.

If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.

To tackle any problem, we must clearly outline and understand it. I broadly see three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.

2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.

3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

While the first category is impossible to eradicate completely, we can create both laws and code to minimize this behaviour, just as we have always done offline. The second category requires us to redesign systems in a way that changes incentives. And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.

You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.

At pivotal moments, generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diverse groups of people have been able to agree on essential principles. With the Law of the Sea and the Outer Space Treaty, we have preserved new frontiers for the common good. Now too, as the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.

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