Editor’s Note: Dries Buytaert is founder of Drupal and CTO of Acquia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I still remember the feeling in the year 2000 when a group of five friends and I shared a modem connection at the University of Antwerp. I used it to create an online message board so we could chat back and forth about mostly mundane things. The modem was slow by today’s standards, but the newness of it all was an adrenaline rush. Little did I know that message board would change my life.
In time, I turned this internal message board into a public news and discussion site, where I shared my own experiences using experimental web technologies. Soon, I started hearing from people all over the world that wanted to provide suggestions on how to improve my website, but that also wanted to use my site’s technology to build their own websites and experiment with emerging web technologies.
Before long, I was connected to a network of strangers who would help me build Drupal, one of the first web content management systems that now powers more than a million websites. For me, the early web was a place to build, connect and experience the kindness of strangers. I’m afraid that experience is all but gone for my kids.
I want it back.
Today, the reality is much different for my sons, who will grow up on a web where rampant privacy violations seem to happen on a weekly basis. Nearly 90 million Facebook users had their personal data leaked during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the FTC is now said to be investigating YouTube for allegedly violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
And privacy isn’t the only problem. Unlike the original web, where everyone built their own little corner of the internet universe, millions of people are concentrated within powerful social media platforms that provide a curated filter for the web, spreading bullying, hate speech and worse around the globe in seconds. Large social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to contain this type of content, even with the most sophisticated machine-learning algorithms and extensive content curation teams.
The difference between the old web and the web today is that most of the power is now controlled by a small group of companies. These companies have exchanged free services for users’ data and hidden their practices behind difficult-to-understand terms of service and privacy policies. And, while connecting massive amounts of users around the world has been positive in many ways, it has also become frighteningly simple to spread hate or misinformation. Only now are we beginning to see the ramifications of power and virality.
Our web is no longer our own.
Yet, despite abuse after abuse, consumers continue to give their attention — and data — willingly to giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. According to Pew Research, the share of US adults using social media has remained largely unchanged since 2018. How much abuse are we willing to tolerate to make a change? And what kind of consequences will be enough to make these abuses stop?
The mega-corporations responsible for privacy violations need to be held accountable for their actions. I don’t necessarily believe that a breakup of big technology companies is the answer, but I