How the popularization of the web is tranforming our relationships

This article is an extract of the National Institute Computer Research INRIA website. All rights reserved. Marie Varandat, Oct 7, 2011.

Internet of the New opportunities, new challenges, new risks and new fears are emerging. The Internet of the future, gradually taking shape right now in the research field, has generated numerous debates concerning among other things the protection of privacy.

A debate between Anne-Marie Kermarrec (Senior Research Scientist) and Dominique Cardon (Sociologist).

What are the great milestones of the Internet of the future? What is the major challenge?

Anne-Marie Kermarrec: : Internet usage has changed considerably over the years. Originally reserved for military personnel, it was subsequently used by academic staff. Later, the general public also gained access to it, initially as readers and consumers and today as content producers in their own right, leaving traces and information each time they go online.

Dominique Cardon: This “popularization” of the web is also changing our social behaviour. Back in the pioneering days, the Internet was reserved for a select group of people, most of whom were highly educated. However, with the emergence of social networks in the mid-2000s, all web users now have the possibility to become both readers and participants, thanks to the convergence of communication and publication media technologies. As the pioneers saw it, the web was a completely separate world. Today, it cannot be denied that it has become part of our everyday lives. Our real and virtual lives are increasingly converging.

Anne-Marie Kermarrec: These changes were neither planned nor anticipated. They have left us with some real problems, particularly in terms of data confidentiality and privacy protection. Although the Internet was originally designed as a “web” to limit the risk of the network being destroyed in the event of an attack, the fact nevertheless remains that the data is centralised in the hands of a number of major companies such as Google and Facebook. As this change had not been planned for from a legislative viewpoint, the confidentiality guarantees provided by these companies are relatively weak or even non-existent. Faced with the danger of a “Big Brother” situation emerging, it is now vital to conceive the Internet from something other than a technical angle and to initiate major changes by encouraging the decentralisation of data. The goal must be to bring about the disappearance of “central authorities” possessing complete information about individuals.

Dominique Cardon: The risk is not limited to companies taking control. The centralisation of information can also take place at a state level. We can easily imagine the possibilities for political misbehaviour which arise from such a situation.

Anne-Marie Kermarrec: This problem is central to the work which we are currently undertaking at Inria. Faced with such a danger, we need technology capable of decentralising web functions. Typically, rather than using a search engine on the Internet, the user has a function which, at a given moment, combines several services in order to provide the best possible response.

Moving from an Internet run by companies to an Internet focused on its users.

In other words we will be moving from an Internet run by companies to an Internet focused on its users, in which the services will be combined according to needs, within a precise framework and for a given timeframe. Technically, the task before us is a complex one but is by no means insurmountable. This move to a user-centric Internet must also open up new perspectives regarding the filtering of information – another key challenge for the Internet of the future. Between emails, blogs, websites and chat rooms, today’s web users are drowning under a sea of information. I don’t have any solutions to propose here, but it is clear that we need to find a way of optimising the circulation of information and filtering it to ensure greater relevancy.

Dominique Cardon: Where individuals are concerned, today’s Internet has brought with it some major social repercussions. The dream of democratisation on the part of the pioneers (everyone communicating with everyone) has not become reality. The reason for this is fairly simple. Although the Internet facilitates contact in the virtual world, the principles governing social relationships have remained the same. In other words, in both the virtual world and the real world, people only communicate when they have shared interests. The result is that the Internet has not broken down social and cultural barriers. The groups remain the same. The key players and extroverts of the virtual world are the same as those in the real world whereas the shy and thoughtful types, who nevertheless exist as a real-world group, are disappearing in the virtual world. Other changes likely to have major social consequences are currently underway. Our relationship to paper-based written material is declining while our relationship to writing in general is being transformed. Web users are faced with overabundant information while the numerous economic models generated by the Internet have trouble existing alongside the older models. And these changes are accompanied by the new risk of surveillance and tracking.

Although centralisation brings with it no positive benefits, it must be remembered that interpersonal, decentralised surveillance will also have an effect upon our societies.

I share Anne-Marie Kermarrec’s opinion of the dangers of data centralisation, but I am even more alarmed by the phenomenon of interpersonal surveillance, which has been particularly heightened through the use of social networks. In a more or less consensual manner, web users are publishing enormous amounts of information and are monitoring one another. The boundary between private discussions and public content has not yet been truly established. Collecting data about a given individual is therefore relatively simple and such information can then be used out of context. As an example, a private conversation may be viewed by a recruiter and used to the advantage or detriment of a possible candidate. The relationship between parents and their children may also be affected. To sum up, although centralisation brings nothing positive for us, interpersonal and decentralised surveillance also looks set to turn our society upside down.

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