Why we need to rebuild internet search, putting user privacy first
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(Image credit: Shutterstock / HaseHoch2)

Everyone who browses the internet is familiar with advertising. Regardless of what browser, search engine or social media app we use to search the web, every day we are peppered with ads that prey on our aspirations and insecurities to sell us products. An entire generation has grown up believing that if you want to check in on your friends, learn new skills or just entertain yourself then the cost of doing business is companies will exploit your personal data to sell you things. So why is this the case?

When the internet’s infrastructure was first being built, the major platforms understandably needed to make money early on, and decided that showing advertising on top of content was the quickest solution. This allowed them to satisfy their investors while getting on with the business of building new technology.

Problems later emerged because what started out as a quick fix to a short-term problem turned into a central part of the internet’s architecture. Like anything else in tech, engineers quickly went to work optimizing advertising to be as efficient as possible, stumbling into a situation where the world’s biggest and most powerful companies were suddenly incentivized to gather more and more personal data on users to sell advertising. This resulted in algorithms to maximize engagement on content sites that prioritized instinctive and emotional decisions – or “fast thinking” as the Nobel Prize winner in behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman calls it.

The downside of this is that it may likely promote things like fake news and radicalization, or target insecurities and vulnerabilities to sell diet pills or cosmetic procedures. No one set out to turn mankind’s greatest source of knowledge into a temple to consumerism, but at some point, the algorithms took over. Now, many people could not imagine it any other way. 

How does this work in practice?

All technology is built with a clearly defined strategic or commercial goal, and the web browsers that dominate search illustrate this. Microsoft Explorer was originally built to secure vendor lock-in and help Windows maintain its dominant position. This led to the “Browser Wars” of the nineties where Explorer displaced Netscape, ultimately resulting in a court case accusing Microsoft of being a monopoly and ordering them to be broken up, which was only overturned on appeal. 

This case arguably made Microsoft wary of being too aggressive in the browser space, allowing some competition in the space for the likes of Opera and Mozilla Firefox, a non-profit remake of Netscape’s browser. But it was in 2008 that advertising became more fully baked into internet use. Google released Chrome, offering an improved user experience while directing more users to its search engine, which in turn runs on advertising. The browser offered a top-class user experience by gathering up even more user data, and using this in turn to personalize ads and make advertising more deeply integrated into the modern internet.

Fast-forward to today, and we see an internet landscape where advertising has gone from a convenient tool for monetization to reshaping how we interact with the world. Most people spend hours per day on their phones, fed a steady diet of advertising through their browsers, search engines and apps, most of which rely on advertising as the default way to make money. Every time we conduct a search, we give another little piece of ourselves away to the data industrial complex, which rewards us with more ads. Advertising is the original sin of the internet. 

Why we need privacy

But our attitudes have started to shift in recent years. We are now eight years on from Edward Snowden’s data leak, which was the first time many people confronted the fact that their data was being stored and accessed by third parties in ways they did not like. The 2016 presidential election showed the power of social media to some people, and how a relentless focus on attention and clicks can create markets for fake news, or micro-target people based on their personal data.

Suddenly privacy became something that had intrinsic value again. Apple began to market itself as being pro-privacy, and the search engine DuckDuckGo took off based on the fact that it does not gather data on users. But advertising remained embedded in the internet, until a technological solution could emerge to uproot it.

How blockchain can help

The beauty of technology is that it is constantly evolving, throwing up new challenges and opportunities. Just as advertising solved the problem of monetization needed to build the web, new technology is emerging that can break the stranglehold online advertising has taken on our daily lives. 

In tech, user experience is king, so any alternative to data-driven search needs to offer an experience that is at least as good. This technology would have to compete with the data industrial complex by offering the same user experience without handing over users’ data. Recent breakthroughs in the development of Multi-Party Computation (MPC) show the way, creating the conditions for a solution that can make use of user data without handing it to a third party. 

This privacy preserving blockchain-like technology can rank searches according to a user’s private preferences, without ever sharing those preferences with a third party. It allows a distributed set of computers to directly access encrypted data without knowing anything about the data involved in the computations; zero-knowledge computation. Data remains secure in all states, and the user experience can theoretically be unaffected. 

This has the prospect to decentralize the internet and revolutionize the economy that it is built on. Putting privacy first turns users from sources of commercial data to autonomous internet users who make their own decision. 

This approach challenges the internet economy and the traditional business model that collects and capitalises on vast amounts of behavioural data. However, in recent years, the European Union has consistently ruled in favour of privacy with the introduction of legislation like GDPR, and by actively encouraging the development of new privacy-preserving solutions through grants, forums and incentives like the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme. 

Our commitment remains to internet users first and foremost. However, there is still considerable work remaining to compete with the traditional internet business model, but good technology often finds a way to win. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, nothing is so powerful as a technology whose time has come.

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