While noting the coming of the web's 20th unofficial anniversary in a blog of a few days ago, I stopped myself short of complete wonderment. Not everything about the web has been good for the world.
The problem in a nutshell: the prevailing ethos has been that the web's positive aspects far outweight its downsides, and anyone who disagrees with this view is a lunatic trying to usher in a police state. I'm sure that investment bankers would have used similar arguments to defend their business a few years ago, so perhaps we should point out the negatives once more just to make sure we're not delusional.
Lack of hierarchy has its risks
Naturally, a tour of the web's dark side would include malware-serving servers, child porn sites, extremist propaganda sites, and so on, something people have tended to take for granted.
Say what you like, this betrays problem number one with the web - there is no real hierarchy, not withstanding failed attempts to retrofit a modified top-level domain structure on top of what is there now. Websites vary in their currency, but they all start from exactly the same point, regardless of content.
This wonderful openness has given the web its innovation and annoyed oppressive governments for sure, but it has also allowed anyone and everyone access to the medium whether they have built up credentials or not. It had to be that way, we all believe. A proprietary web would almost certainly have failed, or would have ended up like a limited walled garden in the mould of the now-extinct Compuserve and AOL of old.
From disintermediation to the very opposite
Ten years ago, Internet fundamentalists were obsessed with the notion that the web would ‘disintermediate' commerce and to some extent they were right. The classic example, Amazon, has helped transform the way people buy books and music by cutting out shops based on an expensive business model. Budget airlines are another more contentious example.
More recently, the opposite effect has been seen, with a host of middle men springing up in cyberspace using convincing web fronts to peddle products (concert tickets, flights) in ways that actually do the opposite by adding a fee for zero real advantage. They exploit the lack of hierarchy and the openness to add costs in ways people find hard to detect, and in some cases, just perpetrate straight fraud. It looks like an open market (heck the web has to be open, no?), but it is anything but.
The audience does not understand the web
And this brings us to the worst web phenomenon of all: its users, or 'customers' in e-speak. People think in terms of hierarchy and control without realising the above points, that the web and the Internet have barely any. At a time when governments have turned back to the idea of regulation for just about everything, the web-Internet trundles on with barely a scent of such an idea being held in its direction.
Consumers assume when they see a ticket website that it must be legitimate because it reminds them of other websites that are acting legitimately. This is the crude psychology of the web for many people. They have little idea how easy it is to bung up a website in an afternoon, and start collecting money, no license needed, no questions asked. They have not clocked that nobody polices websites because nobody, apparently, can.
It is incredible that a decade after the web became mainstream, that a portion of its users are still this naïve. They demand that rogue sites are taken down, that offensive sites are blocked, and that some kind of walled garden is set up to firewall society from its worst excesses not realising that trying to do this in a comprehensive way would mean imposing the awful evil of hierarchy.
This is not to say that some excesses could not be curbed with the right technology in the right place, as the McColo ISP shutdown (which temporarily chopped global spam volumes) of some months ago hinted. But 20 years after the idea for the web was first written down the web looks to me to be heading for trouble.
Sooner or later, governments and the people who elect them will lose patience with the laissez faire attitude on which web commerce has been based, and when they do, take cover. The things we think are great about the web could turn out to be an interesting phase before it was turned into something that just looks like every other mass medium.