Building the First Amendment Into the Web and Other Hopes for the Internet’s Future

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, which has become the backbone of economic invention for the past two decades. Today, he wants to change it. Internet Archive

Maybe it’s time to rethink the internet. The main purpose of the web, as we know it, is to sell ads—by trading off of our personal information, our status updates, our baby photos. And despite its freewheeling roots, the internet has come to be dominated by just a few companies, from Amazon to Google to Facebook, all of which “silo” information in some way. And countries like China are able to very effectively control what their citizens see and read. 

Meanwhile, none of the web was built to last. Visit your favorite website from 1998 and see if the links still work, or if that glorious open and shutting mailbox GIF is still up on your GeoCities website. (Speaking of which, where did GeoCities go?)

It seems needless to worry about any of this in an era when the internet is giving us more almost daily. But for a lot of the internet’s early founders, and for a lot of its contemporary tinkerers, now is the time to dream of a better web—one where you could control your own information and decide how to use it, where links and videos and even programs would last forever, and where anonymity was baked into the system.

Dreaming about and creating the next version of the internet is the goal of the Decentralized Web Summit, a conference hosted June 8-9 by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to universal access to all knowledge.

The Internet Archive is housed in a massive old church, complete with a dome topped by stained glass. To watch a speech, one must sit in a pew. There is no password on the Wi-Fi. The slats that once displayed hymn numbers now read 314, 159, 265—the first digits of pi—on one side and 161, 803, 399—the ratio of the Fibonacci Sequence—on the other.

Behind the pews, in a space where organs once sat, are the servers that actually run the Wayback Machine, a project that aims to save all the old websites in history. Seemingly silent moments are actually filled with the hum of the fans on the boxes keeping the servers cool; dozens of flashing lights each show requests from the archive, which serves everything from the first whitehouse.gov, from 1996, to Apple’s first attempts at e-commerce. If it wasn’t for this San Francisco nonprofit, those early pieces of internet history would already be gone.  

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, which has become the backbone of economic invention for the past two decades. Today, he wants to change it. The internet set off a massive wave of innovation, Berners-Lee says, but he worries that it’s increasingly become a series of silos, like Facebook and Twitter, that try to keep their users on their sites or push them to proprietary apps for access.

“It’s time to re-decentralize the web,” Berners-Lee told the conference.

Looking back at the glory days of the web, to a time when the internet was still in its infancy, may seem like folly. But the internet of the late 1990s was a wild place. It was more likely to be found on servers in people’s bedrooms or on university machines than in a corporate rack space. Sure, the backgrounds made things a bit unreadable and perhaps everyone was a little too fond of animated GIFs, but it was also a little quirkier, a little crazier.

And the first search engines didn’t tell people how to optimize as much as figure out what the hell was going on. The programmers and technologists dreaming of the decentralized web want to bring back a bit of that self-starting ethos. It’s a Google-Amazon-Facebook world, sure, but it wasn’t supposed to end up that way.

There’s more to decentralizing the web than dreaming beyond the mega-corporations that built it. The subtitle of the conference is “Locking the web open,” which refers to the hope that the next-wave internet will make it technically impossible to block access and will preserve anonymity for users.

Brewster Kahle founded the Internet Archive, and he also sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving digital rights. Kahle says part of his motivation for looking for a new internet came from the National Security Agency files released by Edward Snowden. Among them was evidence that Britain’s spy agency watched all the readers of WikiLeaks and recorded their IP addresses. “We want to make [the web] reader-private,” Kahle said. You shouldn’t feel you have to hide something you research, he insisted.

The web as it exists now does only one of the three things Kahle thinks should be required. “It’s not reliable, it’s not private, but it is fun,” Kahle said. The decentralized web could change that, he thinks, if it builds in encryption and uses the technology that drives peer-to-peer technologies—like BitTorrent, a file-sharing system that requires its users to contribute to the system, and bitcoin, a digital currency that is anonymous but also verifiable. Changes to how the web works, and how we surf it, could “bake the First Amendment into the code itself,” Kahle said.

But getting there will take a lot of people like Tantek Çelik, a co-founder of IndieWeb and Mozilla’s web standards lead. Çelik started IndieWeb to bring together people interested in taking control of their content. The way the web works now, he says, “you give up your identity, you give up your data, and you give up your privacy.” IndieWeb helps produce software that lets people use the web how they want and keep their information to themselves.

One of IndieWeb’s projects is Known, a content-managing system and blogging platform like WordPress—but one that also allows users to share content, as they would on social networks such as Twitter, or check into events. It’s a start, but Çelik says getting people to run their own sites instead of relying on giants like Facebook, which have made things very easy, will take work. Still, he’s happy with his growth: He said there are 10 times as many people running indieweb code this year as last.

It’s a project built from passion and cooperation. That may not seem like a combination that can compete with Amazon’s billions when it comes to the future of the web, let alone grow. But that ethos was actually behind a lot of the early innovations on the web. “Your content is yours, you’re better connected, and you are in control,” Çelik said.

One of the conference's sponsors was Google, which may be a sign that the web giant doesn’t see an immediate threat in breaking the web as we currently know it.

Vint Cerf, who was one of the founding drivers of the internet and now works for Google, gave a keynote speech at the conference that centered on making the web more permanent. He has reservations about building the web around decentralized systems, especially the type that require participation, such as BitTorrent systems.

“The folks here who are focused on the distributed web idea have the hope you won’t need a business model because people will just share the resources,” Cerf says. “I’m nervous about the economics of that. I’m worried about the skill of the people we’d be relying on to maintain that software environment. As much as I like the sociological idea, I’m not 100 percent sure that’s the most reliable system.”

Cerf does have dreams of improving the core functionality of the web, though. He hopes to make information, and links and videos, live forever, something he calls the “self-archiving web.” Creating a version of the internet that won’t break with age was another goal of the technologists here.

Whatever the future of the internet, it’s clear we’re not yet on the final version. For the people at the Decentralized Web conference, the future looked a bit more like anarchy than corporatocracy or government control.  

“The decentralized web is going to give anyone the same power as a corporation,” said Kyle Drake, another programmer hoping to bring back a bit of the ’90s verve with Neocities, a replacement for that departed giant of the World Wide Web, version 1.0: GeoCities.