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The Fundamental Flaw at the Heart of the Internet

Close up of woman's hand typing on computer keyboard in the dark against colourful bokeh in background, working late on laptop at home Credit - Getty Images—© 2022 Yiu Yu Hoi

Tuesday, March 12 marked the 35th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the visionary who designed it, now says the web is “perverse,” and doing more harm than good. The way it has evolved, he says, generates dysfunctional incentives that allow a few giant platforms and their all-knowing algorithms to steer human behavior into antisocial, destructive directions.

So how do we fix the internet? Berners-Lee knows as much as anyone that it cannot be achieved with Band-Aid solutions. Previous approaches to solving the internet’s ills—for example, the European Union’s privacy protections, such as 2016’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and its “right to be forgotten” laws—have not delivered on their promise because they failed to address the core problem of the net’s design. As the great architect and design philosopher Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s the mindset we need to bring to this most urgent of tasks.

A foundational overhaul starts with the recognition that a basic challenge has long dogged the engineers who’ve built and maintained the internet: how is it possible to allow people to privately and safely identify themselves to one another without exposing sensitive information to the world at large?

The internet’s open-information architecture provides its value to humanity, but it also creates the potential for mass surveillance. That identification challenge was much less of a problem for the non-human machines that the internet’s founders hooked up to the network, the computers charged with coordinating its decentralized system for sharing “packets” of data. Using something called an internet protocol (IP) address, each was assigned a unique identifier whenever it connected to the network; the system continues to work this way. Whether it’s your laptop, your smartphone, or your TV connected to Wi-Fi, it’s the device that’s identified with that all-important IP address, not you.

This wasn’t much of an issue during the first, relatively sleepy two decades of the internet’s life. But in the 1990s, when giant waves of non-technical, ordinary folk connected to the web and started exchanging money and things of value with businesses and one another, we needed to know we could trust the humans on the internet, not just the machines. Who was going to oversee the verification of these people? And how?

We have not yet resolved this challenge. As a result, people who use the internet are beholden to powerful intermediary institutions who act as controllers and arbiters of our identity verification. This middleman position allows these companies to vacuum up our data within an opaque, closed system that enables them to build the giant internet platforms that control our lives today. It’s now up to us to come up with a system that wrests back control.

Read More: AI Poses Threats to Humanity

We propose a new protocol model that re-empowers humans, ideas under development within the Project Liberty initiative. These are proposals, not dictates. It’s up to the market to decide which software becomes standard and which new innovations are adopted. Nonetheless, the principles embedded in our ideas—which are based on allowing people to decide who gets access to their data and content, when, how, and under what terms—should help us find solutions that serve the common good. They offer a solid foundation on which to imagine a better future.

Whatever structural redesign wins out, implementing it—and replacing today’s irreparably broken structure—is an urgent, unavoidable first step in fixing our fractured society and our polluted civic discourse. Merely introducing new laws and regulations won’t cut it; they will never keep up with the power and pace of new technologies. We must upgrade the plumbing of this digital information system, augmenting its core protocols with new software that can overhaul the data-hogging system that goes with it. Whatever we come up with must have humans front of mind.

Still, while both the problem and the solution lie with technology, the catalyst for change must come from everyone, not just from the engineers and developers. We need popular participation, a collective mission that transcends the narrow, functional questions of software design. An overhaul of the internet is inherently a social and political project.

We can view this current problem through a lens afforded us by a much older one: the American Project, set forth by Thomas Paine and his fellow founding fathers. While there is no perfect society, we believe that the American Project—at least as it was designed, implemented, and iterated upon for most of its two and a half centuries of existence—offers a useful benchmark against which to conduct this analysis. For all of the United States’ flaws, including an era of legalized slavery, no other society has produced the same level of prosperity, technological advance, intellectual and cultural dynamism, and freedom in such a short period of time.

Is it grandiose to compare our mission to that of America’s founding fathers? We firmly believe there is a similar level of urgency, with fabric of our society again at stake. Back then, American settlers were subjects, beholden to the far-reaching, absolute powers of a monarch. We now live in a system of digital autarchy, with the platforms—empowered by manipulative algorithms that tap into humans’ dopamine functions—essentially acting as our digital feudal overlords. That’s why we view the American Project as a valuable guide in this most important of undertakings.

The American Project can be seen as an amalgam of rules, social norms, and institutions intended to allow a nation to grow, address changing circumstances, and perpetually generate opportunities for advancement among its citizenry as well as to ensure a general state of peace and well-being for everyone. With democratic underpinnings founded on principles of personal liberty, equality under the law, and free markets, it cultivated an understanding among American citizens that while they were privileged to enjoy those core personal rights and freedoms, they had to respect the same for others.

The American Project fostered a parallel responsibility to look out for the common good. Most important, it wasn’t conceived of as a finished concept; it was always a work in progress. It was built to enable change, with U.S. laws expected to evolve with changing circumstances and shifting mores, while government leaders, legislators, and the courts treated those founding principles as the North Star against which present conditions should be assessed. It’s how the nation’s electoral rules evolved from “one white man, one vote” to “one person, one vote,” and why our society continues to confront, debate, and address areas in which it is thought to fall short of those core ideals. Without this framework, progress would be impossible.

For digital society that’s fits humans, we should apply the same principles to a redesign of the internet.

Contact us at letters@time.com.