‘Free for everyone’: The past, present and future of the internet

11 March 2019

‘Free for everyone’: The past, present and future of the internet

Social media, Googling and virtual assistants are all things we take for granted today that were enabled by Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web (WWW) 30 years ago in 1989. The first web browser followed in 1990, the WWW went public in 1993, and in 1994 the World Wide Web consortium was set up to help develop open web standards. Back then, the internet was slow and hard to access, but today, it is a different story. The internet is everywhere and almost everything, including your thermostat, phone, even your kettle, can be connected to the internet, but is there a downside to this?

Data, data, data

When using the internet, we give away personal data by filling in forms, browsing websites, commenting on Facebook and watching YouTube videos, which is harvested by organisations in return for ‘free’ access to their services. The focus on personal information gathering has commoditised data and created a market where it can be bought and sold by internet enterprises with the intention of influencing users online.

Whilst this has resulted in the internet becoming efficient, ubiquitous and, in some circumstances, improving our daily lives, it also means that there are companies with ownership rights, sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence and other technologies that we do not have. These organisations store and protect our data as if it is a tangible commodity and the potential societal, personal and economic benefits of the internet are not evenly distributed throughout society. Data, in this model, is not equally accessible or beneficial to all users and individuals lack personal rights in terms of ownership and privacy. Whilst the GDPR was a positive step forward, it only provided a legal basis for users with respect to their data and its portability.

Benefits for all

Recently, however, the government has taken a progressive stance on data mobility (i.e., data sharing) for all of society. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) commissioned a study to investigate whether there are more personal, societal and economic benefits to be gained when data rights and mobility are equal across society. The report concluded that more data mobility between all in society, not just internet companies, could prove to be one of the most potent stimulants for growth in this increasingly digital and connected world. The most powerful finding is that data mobility can not only empower individuals to safely manage, share and make use of their data, but also provide a platform for unprecedented innovation.

Indeed, this is the mantra fuelling many start-ups today, that providing individuals with private data accounts, ownership rights and access to technology previously only available to large corporations will stimulate innovation and equally distribute the benefits outlined in the DCMS report. This creates a market where we can create unique insights with our data, organisations have to ask us for it, we can decide who we share data with, what we share, and for what duration.

A new era

We are on the cusp of a new internet era where individuals will have access to sophisticated technology, can store, share and control their own personal data. The internet will never truly be ‘free’ but the direction we are heading in pays tribute to the original ethos, a place where everyone can share data as equals. Whilst challenges to achieve this exist, government should embrace this opportunity.

I believe that this will foster new markets, business models and new uses of data that support and empower individuals. The playing field will once again be level.