Today is World Wide Web Day, when the world celebrates all the amazing things that were enabled when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a member of our advisory board, created the building blocks of the web at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 1989. Sir Tim considers the true birth of the web to be March 12, but World Wide Web Day is generally celebrated on August 1.
For this year’s WWW Day, we interviewed Proton’s founder and CEO, Dr. Andy Yen, along with two prominent activists and thought leaders, Cory Doctorow and Max Schrems, on what the future of the web could hold.
Cory Doctorow is a special consultant at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, science fiction author, and journalist. He wrote How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, which looks at how people can seize control of the internet back from Big Tech. You can follow him on his blog, Pluralistic.
Max Schrems is a lawyer, author, and founder of None of Your Business, a nonprofit that fights in court for the privacy rights of European citizens. Max famously took Facebook to court (and won) and has won several other important court cases to block the transfer of EU citizens’ data to the US.
The following responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What do you think the web will realistically look like in 30 years? And what is your hope for the future of the web?
I hope for a web where interoperability allows you to tear services apart and put them back together in ways that make sense to you. This would allow people to pick and choose what they want from a service. It would allow you to create a rival Facebook client that has your friends’ messages but blocks the surveillance. Interoperability gives you the power to put a thumb on the scales for your interests, even when that’s counter to the interests of Big Tech’s shareholders.
My vision is a warning about web fragmentation. Countries are regulating the internet more and more with different objectives. Think of how Russia or China regulate the internet compared to EU countries.
I hope we can at least develop compatible legal frameworks among democratic countries to build a cohesive, open, and free block of the web. This would include giving basic rights to all users, regardless of whether they’re citizens. Currently, your rights often end at your national border, while the web does not.
I’m optimistic and believe the web of the future will be more private because citizens around the world are demanding it. From a technological standpoint, it will also become harder to stop the privacy movement due to the democratization of technology.
For example, some of the core technologies that Proton Mail, our free secure email service, relies upon to protect user data, such as end-to-end encryption, used to be highly inaccessible when we first launched in 2014. However, with the proliferation of open-source encryption libraries, such as OpenPGPjs, implementing encryption reliably and securely is now within reach of all of the world’s developers. It’s hard to put the encryption genie back in the bottle.
What obstacles do you see that could prevent the web from turning out the way you hope?
Big Tech monopolists are the barrier blocking our path to a better, more decentralized web where people have the power. For years, Big Tech companies have acquired, threatened, and removed potential competitors from their platforms, stifling progress and cementing their position at the top of the web. Once revolutionary innovators, these companies now block innovation so they can focus on collecting more personal data, placing more ads, and locking more people into their walled gardens.
I think it might be even worse than that. All the CEOs of every important internet company can fit around one table. And if they all fit around one table, they can agree on what their priorities are.
So when the government comes along and says to one of these companies, ‘Hey, you should stop doing bad stuff’, they say, ‘Actually, that’s technically impossible’. And everybody in the industry says, ‘Yeah, it’s technically impossible’, and we just have to take their word for it. Almost all the experts who can technically evaluate Big Tech’s excuses work for Big Tech. They’ve not only cornered the market, but they cornered the market on understanding the market.
I agree Big Tech is a problem. Today, politics is centered around nation-states while large internet companies operate internationally, allowing them to abuse the differences in laws between countries. They pretend they can pick and choose which jurisdictions or rights they want to comply with. These companies want to benefit from the Irish tax regime and the US’s approach to freedom of speech and privacy while still accessing the European market.
What’s the single biggest change that needs to happen for us to achieve your hope for the web of the future?
To arrive at a web where people truly have the power to decide what happens to their information, we need to make the web a level playing field. Companies must be forced to compete on the merits of their service, not their ability to distort the market, suppress competition, or acquire competitors.
Take Facebook, now Meta. No matter how much you dislike its privacy practices, there’s little you can do about it and little incentive for it to change because it has eliminated or bought most of its meaningful alternatives.
I think it’s very simple. Politicians have to ensure that local rules are complied with and enforced.
Legislative efforts and the scrutiny and potential unwinding of mergers are good remedies. The problem is they take a long time. It took the federal government 69 years to successfully break up AT&T. I would like us to have some action on Facebook in fewer than 69 years.
The beauty of interoperability is that it creates remedies in the moment. As soon as we tell companies they have to share unlock codes with independent technicians, third parties can enter the market and do stuff. And it’s not limited to other big commercial operators. It could be startups, co-ops, small community groups, church groups, the Boy Scouts, whoever.
What can everyday people realistically do in their daily lives to help achieve the web you hope for?
People can make helpful daily choices, like using privacy-focused services. However, the issues with the web are far larger and systemic, so asking the users to solve the problem is an unfair shift in responsibility. The industry itself has to act more ethically, and regulators must act more efficiently.
The best way you can help build a better web is to take change into your own hands instead of waiting for politicians or regulators. Fortunately, the nature of the web makes this possible. For example, if you use Proton Mail as an alternative to Gmail, you remove your email and your email address, which is your main online identity, from Google’s database. Every time you opt out of Big Tech, you protect yourself and help democratize the web a bit more. If we all take small actions like this, the collective impact can be massive over time.
We need political change that affects the structure of markets themselves, which requires political will. And that’s where individuals have a role to play. First, make this a live issue with your friends and family and help them understand that the problems they’re having with technology are due to a lack of competition.
Then you need to turn that understanding into action. Local, regional, and national lawmakers worldwide are trying to get your vote. They really want to know what will turn you out. If you can convince your lawmakers that monopolization is an issue that matters to you, then that fight will be joined in earnest.