How to actually fix the internet

Inspired by Ev Williams' mini-manifesto.

Humans are humans, and society is full of good and bad actors. Technology, at the most fundamental level, is a neutral tool that can be used by either to meet any ends. There is nothing inherent in technology or the internet that says it must be used for noble causes, just like there is nothing inherently evil about technology — it is what its users decide it is, through usage over time.

Still, I and many others believe the internet should be used for good, and more importantly, that it's not exceptionally difficult to do. In my mind, it requires a few things: first, an alignment of incentives between the makers of technology and the users of technology, starting with the business model. Second, a higher regard for professional ethics in the entire industry, at all levels.

The problem with ad-based models

The starting point is this: much of our mass media is supported by the advertising industry, and has been for over a hundred years. It is not a surprising new activity for publications to pump out clickbait on the internet to maximize their advertising revenue — the phenomenon has a history that goes at least as far back as Benjamin Day in 1833, when he created the New York Sun and sold copies for cheaper than any other paper, funding it with advertising instead of subscriptions.

New media companies simply did the same thing as old ones when the internet came along, choosing to monetize this new medium with ads — and in more and more intrusive ways as the world grew more connected. The problem is that it's no longer enough for advertisers to know that they're reaching sports fans who watch the game at 4pm on a Sunday, but that a viewer also enjoys Bud Light and the St. Louis Rams, made it through 3 years of college without graduating, earns $63k per year, has exactly 2 children, and based on their browsing history, is prone to impulsive buying sprees in the midst of heightened stress (like their favorite team losing).

No one has ever enjoyed advertising that distracted them from something important, or banner ads that gave them a seizure, or pop ups that brought their computer to a grinding halt, just like no one ever opted-in to extensive personal data collection to get “more relevant ads.” The vast majority of people know that it's creepy when a pair of shoes you looked at on Amazon yesterday follows you around to every site you visit. Most people on the receiving end never agreed to this model for the web, and if they could do something about it, they would — as shown by the growing popularity of ad blockers.

Can tech be fixed?

The people who have always been able to do something about this — the ones building the software — have always known when their software was doing something wrong. It's their job to find bugs, and if they're worth their salt, they're always looking for flaws in the overall design, as well as the functional components of what they're building. They know that violating user privacy without consent is a bug. Operating in a way inconsistent with the user's expectations is a bug. Coercing people into using your product with psychological tricks is a bug.

Though many of these poor designs are instigated by higher-ups, they are ultimately implemented by professionals with a deep knowledge of their field. Designers know when they're mocking up screens that prey on people's most basic desires; developers know when they're implementing designs that would feel incredibly wrong as the end user. Fixing tech starts with fixing its ethics. Everything else flows out from there.

It has to start there, because professionals in the tech industry are best qualified to understand the details and importance of these issues — not the CEO or the public, who each have completely different concerns. The CEO needs to maximize shareholder value, and the public just wants to use the damn thing you're making. The average consumer doesn't want to have to think about how a business makes money or potential ways their personal data can be misused — and for good reason! No where else in modern life do consumers have to be so wary. We get into cars and trains and airplanes expecting they won't cause us bodily harm; we consume food and water assuming the same.

Until we get better consumer protections, the market will continue to reward monoliths like Facebook and Google, no matter how plainly self-serving their visions for the world are. It will only stop when surveillance becomes unprofitable. But at the same time, a new set of consumers will start rewarding firms that offer user-respecting products; ones that work and make money in straightforward ways, and don't subvert the user's wishes.

Fixing tech starts within our industry, right now, with companies taking ethics and our shared humanity more seriously. Anyone who makes it their priority today will be far ahead of the game, and might serve as a model that others can follow.