I've always thought of the internet as a massive public square. A place filled with commerce and conversation and creativity. An open, chaotic space that belongs not to any one person, but to all of us together. A place where we are all citizens.
Recently, that vision has begun to ebb away. The feelings of agency and independence that characterised the first two decades of the web are being eroded by a pernicious shifting of control.
Surveillance and censorship
This shift is occurring on multiple levels: government surveillance, the curtailing of free speech from authoritative regimes, advertisers tracking our online activities without our consent, social media platforms monitoring our data. The common theme is the transfer of control away from you and I – the individual people using the web. It seems that with each passing day, we lose more and more of our rights as digital citizens.
So, what does the future look like if this shift in power continues? By 2025, five billion people will be online, and the vast majority will be from emerging economies like India, Kenya and Bangladesh. Today, Android has an astounding 90% market share in many Asian and African countries; it is fast becoming the Windows 98 of the developing world. Such a near-monopoly will make Android, by default, the arbitrator of what is possible on the web for the millions of people coming online for the first time.
Similarly, Facebook and WhatsApp, both owned by the same company, currently rule 80% of the messaging market. Our collective control of the web is quickly ceding to these online empires.
With these statistics in mind, I can't help but wonder how many of the millions of new internet users will feel like empowered citizens of the web. And for those of us whose daily activities – performing our jobs, electing our governments, pursuing our education, talking to our friends and families – already take place online, are we willing to let our agency continue to slip away?
Three fundamental areas
I believe that we're currently at a crossroads: we must decide whether we want to allow governments and a handful of giant corporations control what we can do on the internet, or whether we want a web that functions as a tool for our collective freedom and independence.
If we choose the latter, we'll need to focus our efforts on three areas that are fundamental to maintaining the web as a shared, global, public resource…
Openness: When content, applications and documentation are published freely using open standards, and are unencumbered by patents or conditional licenses, the web is more resilient to the influence of growing online empires. Open access to the internet is equally important, and we need to advocate for the ability for anyone to view any kind of content across any domain name on any web device, without restrictions from governments or Internet Service Providers.
Decentralisation: Many technologies that shape the web we know today are rooted in Silicon Valley. While the products and programs emerging from this geographical and social enclave can certainly serve a global market, innovation flourishes when entrepreneurs from around the world have an opportunity to compete with established American corporations.
As more and more people from emerging economies come online for the first time thanks to affordable mobile technologies, the demand for content that reflects local language, culture, and economies will only grow. We need the technology, tools, and education opportunities that empower everyone to produce content relevant to their lives and communities.
Literacy: Digital literacy consists of more than learning to code. Instead, it is an understanding of the culture, mechanics and citizenship of the web. To fully recognise what the web can offer, which is more than browsing Google Play, posting on Facebook, or messaging on WhatsApp, people must first understand what's possible. We need to teach digital literacy to people of all ages, just as we do with reading, writing, and maths.
At Mozilla we're addressing these needs through innovative tools, programs and curricula, created in conjunction with a global community of volunteer contributors. In 2014, Webmaker, a program to develop web literacy and digital skills, united more than 130,000 educators, organisations and enthusiastic web users with hands-on learning and web making at thousands of community-run events around the world.
A new, mobile version of Webmaker, which includes a free tool for creating personal apps even if you don't know code, will help thousands of web users in developing countries build locally-relevant tools for commerce, education and entertainment. On a policy level, Mozilla Advocacy is building a global movement to place control of our online experiences back in the hands of individual users.
The web is a distributed, global platform which has altered nearly every aspect of how we live our lives. An open, decentralised web filled with digitally-literate citizens will ensure that we as individuals remain in control of this valuable resource.
- Mark Surman is Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation (opens in new tab)