It’s difficult to comprehend that there would be anything else more important right now than public health and the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the midst of it all, there is a very dangerous precedent being set in the world of tech that will have a lasting impact on our lives.
The open web is changing dramatically, and not for anything that resembles openness, and the world seems to be ok with it.
Disclaimer: This post is not about politics, or health. It is, however, about technology, our responsibility as technologists and trying to create a future where our future selfs don’t hate ourselves.
What is the Open Web?
The term “open web” is often overused, and often, a misunderstood phrase.
It is the idea that the web we interface with should continue to be open and transparent. It’s the genesis for how the internet, and subsequent web, was created. It argues for the idea that openness is the pillar of civilized society, one in which a more informed, educated and civic society is how we progress as a society.
The simple premise of the open web is that it is open for all its users and managed by all its users. The spirt of the web was never for the centralization of control for any one entity, private or government. The web has become part of our social fabric.Tony Perez
In contrast, a closed web has the opposite effect. It becomes an ecosystem controlled by a few, proprietary technology proliferates and potentially governments. The end result is that innovation is stifled. Does this sound familiar?
It should. It’s what we are seeing and experiencing with the proliferation of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Google and many others we have come to be reliant on as a society.
The open web is not an absolute concept. It is continuously evolving as the technical landscape evolves (e.g., self-driving vehicles, Internet of Things (IoT), etc…). It is also the foundation of key legislative movements around the world. In the US, they have helped form things like Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA), and principles like Net Neutrality.
How is The Open Web Dying?
You can argue that the openness of the web has been dying for the past decade. For the web, death comes in the form of a centralization of control and power, and arbitrary authoritarian changes made for the “greater good.”
The current state of our fear for the safety of public health has created the perfect event to push the pendulum out of balance.
Let there be no mistake in our minds, the actions that my fellow technologists, and associated companies, are taking, and pushing, are things that society as a whole will feel in the not so distant future.
The scariest part for me is that as a technologists, I have seen first hand what an organization can do with unfettered access to data, when the checks and balances are lost, when we believe we are the ones capable of dictating what is good for society, on their behalf, without choice, and what a little power can do to any person.
What further amplifies the concern is that it is not government that is driving this “big brother” state of affairs, its big tech. These are entities that are not elected officials, but corporations that transcend physical and logical boundaries. They have the ability to influence what you see, what you think, and they have the ability to choose sides.
Overreaching for Your Safety
There are two very specific events that are happening that I believe we should all be extremely concerned about:
On April 29,2020 Apple and Google released a virus contact tracing feature to app makers with health organization (for phase I).
What does this mean?
This means they have exposed what is known as an Application Programming Interface (API) that will allow app developers ingest information from your devices. This will apply to both Android and iOS devices; OS’s that have 86.1% (Android) and 13.9% (iOS) market share of smartphones in circulation.
In its simplest form, it will require a user to input their health information into their phones, then health organizations can build apps to consume that data. Then, using bluetooth technology, they will be able to analyze a users behaviors and whom they have come into contact with. Building a web of social behavior information.
The initial release will notify a user if they come in proximity of a user that has been diagnosed to have, or have had, COVID19 via some form of notification system.
What could possibly go wrong if society as a whole can now identify who is sick? Regardless of your political position, or where you stand on the COVID19 issue, I think we can all agree that this level of invasion of privacy should never be tolerated.
Society as a whole is not ready for that level of insight. The fact is, as humans, we are susceptible to our irrational, and sometimes, ignorant beliefs. It doesn’t take much to see what is happening around the world as Asians are being attacked for fear of being “Chinese.” Do we really think that notifications on people’s phone is something that we can handle?
This also raises the question, if this type of visibility should ever be built. Once we accept this for COVID19, what stops us form doing it for those diseases that have any level of mortality (because death is death). What if you have HIV/AIDS? What about H1N1? What about Ebola, SARS? Or what about the next pandemic?
By the way, this is only Phase I. Phase I will have a heavy reliance on apps, which translates to user input and health organizations having to build their own consumption platform.
Phase II will break its dependency on apps, according to Google and Apple.
A second phase of the project, to be released in the coming months, will have deeper integration with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems to rely less on apps.Bloomberg
Do you wear a Google Watch? Do you track your health in any of the iOS apps? What happens in a world where health official establish a set of health indicators (e.g., high fever, heart beat, etc..) that are indicative of disease.
What happens in a world where governments enforce their control and take control of systems, for the greater good. Have we seen this happen anywhere?
What exactly is censorship?
The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.
Let’s take a look at what has happened in April 2020 to date, across two of the most prominent platforms on the web – YouTube and Facebook.
1 – YouTube
In April 2020, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO, announced that they would begin removing information that is problematic. She went on to explain that it would be “anything that is medically unsubstantiated.”
Providing a very specific example:
So people saying ‘take vitamin C; take turmeric, we’ll cure you’, those are the examples of things that would be a violation of our policy….Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy.Susan Wojcicki
Then, in April of 2020, two Doctors from Bakersfield, California released their own press release. In it, they openly shared their findings and observations.
This was not a case of individuals selling snake oil. They were sharing their observations, and opinions. Right or wrong, is not the point. It’s the process of normal debate and discourse. They were also seasoned medical professionals.
Shortly after its release, it was removed from the platform. Because it didn’t conform to the guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO). Say what?
It seems a far stretch to remove their content simply because it doesn’t conform to WHO, and goes contrary to spirt of the examples Susan provided. In essence, YouTube is saying you are not allowed to disagree with WHO, at all; do so, and your content will be removed. But what if they are wrong? Are we not allowed to question that?
That is how science and society works, or at least it should. Everyone working together to come to something that makes sense in a world where nothing makes sense. This level of discourse has been one of the things that makes the web what it is, it has been its beauty and power.
Make no mistake, this is censorship in the worst way and sets a horrible precedent. One that should cause every one of us to take pause, and consider the implications of what this means now, and in the future. Today you might agree because you believe their analysis is wrong, and believe in the stay-at-home orders, but what happens when it doesn’t align with your beliefs? What happens when something is removed because it conforms to what your respective government deems inappropriate?
Do we need to go far to see where else this is happening? How it is affecting societies? China? Russia? North Korea? Venezuela? Cuba? New York? Bay Area?
2 – Facebook
In April 2020, Facebook announced it would ban protest events that violate social distancing rules.
Events that defy governments’ guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on FacebookFacebook spokesperson to The Verge
Mark Zuckerberg went on to clarify why they are removing the events:
We do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that downMark Zuckerberg
For those in other countries this might be normal, but in the US these are unprecedented actions.
How do you put this genie back in the bottle?
Once it’s demonstrated that a company has this level of power, how, who, draws the distinction between what government policies they conform with, and which you don’t? What happens when society as a whole disagrees? How do you say yes to state government, but not Federal? How do you tell China, Cuba, North Korea they are wrong for their censorship when we do the same thing?
Our Responsibility as Technologists
I am extremely torn by what I am seeing. It makes it especially difficult because I’m a capitalist. I love free markets. It’s been through these mechanism that I have achieved the things I have and how I live my life.
It’s even more painful because I’m also a technologist. I love building solutions to interesting problems. But I’ll be honest, I feel distressed by what is happening and what appears to be acceptance by other technologists and entrepreneurs that I would typically admire and respect.
What is especially distressing for me is that there is little I see that we can do to reverse the course of events. The most practical approach is a decentralized system that protects the web, but I fear that we have moved well beyond the practicality of a change like that.
That fact is that a very large percentage of society won’t even understand what is happening, and frankly, won’t care, at least until they find themselves wondering why they can’t find information on the web, or why they are wearing a digital golden star.
When we build technologies that have the ability to dramatically affect people globally, it’s imperative that we remove our political and personal biases and focus on the technology. We need to start asking ourselves one very simple question, “just because we can, should we?”