The internet is broken. Here’s how we fix it.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, an engineer working on the ARPANET project — the predecessor to the Internet — sent the first email. The message was nothing profound; it was a series of random characters that looked more like the utterance of a toddler on a typewriter than a groundbreaking moment in technology. But that’s precisely what it was. In its nascent stage, the Internet was a haven for technologists, a playground for people like Tomlinson, who were exploring its potential, nudging at its boundaries, and shaping it into something that would change the world.

Fast forward a few decades, and the Internet has morphed from a fledgling innovation into a sprawling, ubiquitous entity that permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s as if Tomlinson’s initial message has multiplied and mutated, expanding far beyond its creator’s wildest imaginings. In the process, it’s become something he might not recognise — or even like.

Now, imagine a teenage girl; let’s call her Chrissy. Chrissy is part of the digital generation, born and bred in the era of smartphones and social media. Every day, she navigates a barrage of online ads explicitly targeted at her based on her age, gender, browsing history, and even her location. She’s part of a world where her data is a commodity, traded, sold, and used without explicit consent. Chrissy’s world is also one where anonymous online users can hurl insults and threats with impunity. She’s seen her friends become victims of vicious cyberbullying campaigns. And she’s part of a society where the flow of information is dictated not by its accuracy or value but by algorithms that favour what’s sensational, viral, and monetisable.

Ray Tomlinson and Chrissy are bookends on the Internet narrative: one at its hopeful beginning, the other navigating its current tumultuous reality. But the question is, how did we get from Tomlinson to Chrissy? How did a tool designed to democratise information and unlock connectivity devolve into a polarised echo chamber, a wild west of misinformation and privacy compromises? And, more importantly, where do we go from here?

The Internet ain’t what it used to be.

Initially conceived as a tool to democratise information and unlock connectivity, it has devolved over the past two decades into a polarised echo chamber where misinformation thrives and privacy is continually compromised. Once a realm of exploration and discovery, it now too often serves as a platform for hate speech, cyberbullying, and fake news. The rise of monopolistic tech giants has led to a concentration of power, further exacerbating these issues. Algorithms designed to maximise user engagement perpetuate cognitive biases and create information bubbles, isolating us from diverse perspectives. The golden age of the free, open web has been supplanted by a digital wasteland dominated by commercial interests and surveillance.

The Internet today is primarily dominated by algorithms and commercial interests. Protocols have been replaced by platforms designed to “optimise” for engagement, virality, and monetisation at the expense of brutalising the depth of our content and the authenticity of our interactions. This “optimisation” has led to a torrent of shallow, click-bait content designed primarily to grab attention and generate ad revenue rather than to inform, inspire, or enable meaningful connections.

I want to present a roadmap, a recipe for creating a more wholesome internet. One that values quality over quantity, depth over virality, authenticity over commodification, and active engagement over passive consumption. By understanding the shortcomings of the current landscape, we can envisage and enact the transformative shift needed to restore the Internet to what it was always meant to be: a tool for enrichment and connection.

An internet that doesn’t suck.

Okay, but why does the Internet suck?

Imagine you are invited to a grand feast. The table is laden with dishes, but as you begin to taste, you realise the food is oversalted and laced with excessive spices. This is the state of the Internet today, overwhelmed by the overbearing taste of targeted advertisements. These ads have become the high sodium and empty calories of our online diets, making us crave more but leaving us ultimately unsatisfied and malnourished. This need to constantly cater to the advertisers’ interests has led to a dilution of our content quality and a compromise on depth, with sensation and provocation becoming the order of the day.

Imagine if that feast you attended was a grand masquerade ball with attendees hiding behind masks and costumes. It’s hard to trust anyone when you can’t see their faces. That’s akin to the lack of transparency and privacy in today’s Internet. Behind the screens and algorithms, tech companies have been data mining, creating detailed profiles of our identities, preferences, and behaviours. In the masquerade of the online world, our data has become the grandest and most coveted of all masks worn by companies seeking to profit from our online footprints.

What if, amid this masquerade, some guests started becoming unruly, hurling insults and threats without consequences? This is the scourge of violence, a distressing reality of the Internet that creates an environment of hostility and fear, leaving psychological scars that often run deeper than physical ones.

Now, picture this — in between the courses of the grand feast, a town crier steps in, spinning glorious tales that are unfounded. This mirrors the spread of misinformation or ‘fake news’ online. The wild stories of the crier, like the falsified content online, might make for an entertaining spectacle. The potential repercussions — from distorted political landscapes to real-world conflicts — can be dangerously real and far-reaching.

Lastly, imagine if the grand feast was held within a walled city, with access only for the privileged few while the rest stood outside, peering through the gates, their bellies empty and hearts filled with longing. That’s the painful reality of the digital divide that pervades our Internet today. Despite its global reach, not everyone can access this digital banquet equally. This disparity is about more than just missing out on the latest viral video. It’s about missing out on opportunities for education, economic growth, and social mobility.

These five problems — the bombardment of advertisements, lack of privacy, cyberbullying, the spread of misinformation, and the digital divide — paint a bleak picture of our current internet landscape. It’s a vast feast that’s lost its flavour, a grand masquerade that’s forgotten the essence of a true celebration.

We can define these five problems in simple terms.

  1. The greatest challenge to a free, thriving, healthy Internet is the bombardment of targeted advertisements. This is a foundational problem. As many internet platforms heavily depend on advertising for revenue, the online experience has become increasingly cluttered with intrusive and often irrelevant ads. This emphasis on advertising not only diminishes the overall user experience but also pushes content creators to produce sensational or provocative content that garners quick clicks and high engagement, often at the expense of depth and quality.

  2. The related concern is the Internet’s lack of privacy and transparency. In an attempt to target ads more effectively, tech companies often employ complex algorithms to mine user data. The in-depth personal profiles created from this data mining are often used without explicit user consent or knowledge, raising significant privacy concerns. This commodification of personal data fuels the current advertising-dependent business models, further exacerbating the issues of excessive advertisements.

  3. The Internet and social media platforms have also given rise to a new form of violence and harassment: digital violence. The anonymous nature of many online platforms allows individuals to spread hate speech and personal attacks and engage in other forms of harassment with little to no repercussions. This creates a hostile online environment and can impact those targeted psychologically.

  4. The spread of misinformation or ‘fake news’ is the fourth notable drawback of the Internet. The optimisation of algorithms for engagement and virality over quality and truthfulness has enabled the rapid spread of false information. This is not only harmful on an individual level but also has the potential to sway public opinion, distort political discourse, and instigate real-world harm.

  5. The Internet’s evolution has led to a significant digital divide. Despite the Internet’s global reach, there are still stark inequalities regarding who has access to reliable, high-speed Internet and who does not. These disparities, often along the lines of income and geography, have profound implications. They limit educational, economic, and social opportunities for those on the wrong side of the divide, further entrenching existing inequalities.

I want to dissect the shortcomings of the current internet landscape and propose a roadmap for constructing a more wholesome, user-centric internet. My underlying premise is that we must shift our focus from quantity and virality to quality and depth, from commodification to authenticity, and from passive consumption to active, critical engagement. The steps outlined here are geared towards achieving this transformative shift.

The advertising Chornobyl

The Chornobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 and the current state of invasive advertising might, on the surface, seem like strange bedfellows. However, the parallels between the two situations are apparent when you dig deeper.

Chornobyl, a symbol of technological failure and human hubris, was the result of overlooking safety measures in pursuing progress and productivity. Similarly, online advertising has rapidly progressed, prioritising monetisation and conversion rates over respect for users’ experiences and privacy. Like in Chornobyl, where the machinery was pushed to its limits without considering the potentially catastrophic consequences, invasive advertising has grown unchecked, resulting in a polluted digital landscape.

The aftermath of Chornobyl was a devastating radioactive fallout that rendered the surrounding environment toxic and uninhabitable for years. Invasive advertising has led to a ‘digital fallout’ — it has created an online environment filled with obnoxious pop-ups, privacy invasions, and a flood of unwanted content that makes our digital habitat increasingly hostile.

It’s almost impossible to browse the web without a barrage of pop-ups, banners, and sponsored posts that clutter our screens and disrupt our online experience. This relentless onslaught has turned what used to be a liberating experience into a continuous battle against unwanted content.

Websites depend on ad revenues to survive and deliver free content to users. Yet, the proliferation of invasive advertisements has escalated to the point where it undermines the very purpose of the Internet: to offer a platform for unhindered information and communication. Beyond the annoyance factor, these intrusive ads pose serious concerns.

They infract our privacy by tracking our online behaviour, often without explicit consent, and can contribute to misinformation by promoting unverified or misleading content. The enormity of this issue affects not only individual users but also businesses that genuinely want to reach potential customers.

Overusing invasive ads has led to the rise of ad-blocking tools, meaning that even well-meaning advertisements are left unseen. The current ad-heavy model is unsustainable.

So, what’s the solution?

As a collective internet community, it’s high time we explore alternative ways for individuals and businesses to self-regulate their ad content. We need to foster a more respectful, efficient advertising model that provides necessary revenue for content creators while maintaining a pleasant online experience for users. This may mean embracing business models less dependent on ads, investing in more engaging, non-intrusive ads, or offering ad-free experiences for a nominal fee.

The roadmap

  • Rethink the Business Model: Businesses need to investigate and adopt alternative revenue models that are less ad-reliant. This could involve subscription-based models where users pay a small fee to access ad-free content, micro-payment systems for individual pieces of content, or patronage models where users voluntarily support creators. These models could co-exist with advertising but help reduce its prevalence.

  • Invest in Quality Ads: If ads are to remain part of the online landscape, they must evolve. Businesses can work to develop high-quality, engaging advertisements that respect the user’s time and intelligence. These could be native ads that seamlessly integrate with the content or infographics that provide value to the viewer.

  • Offer Ad-free Experiences: For businesses that can’t move away from ads entirely, offering an ad-free experience for a nominal subscription fee could be a viable alternative. This respects the user’s choice and allows those who prefer an ad-free environment to have that option.

  • Promote Ethical Data Use: Transparency about data collection and a commitment to privacy can help restore user trust. Businesses should communicate what data they collect, why, and how it’s used in advertising.

  • Support Legislation and Self-regulation: Businesses can back policies encouraging less intrusive advertising and engage in industry initiatives promoting ethical advertising standards.

The deprivation of privacy

Consider the tale of the first-ever message sent across the ARPANET, the predecessor to the modern Internet. The year was 1969, and the goal was simple: transmit the word “login” from a computer at UCLA to one at Stanford.

In a small, cluttered lab filled with massive computers, a young programmer named Charley Kline was poised at the keyboard, ready to type in the historical command. The Stanford team, miles away, waited on the other end. Kline keyed in the ‘l’ and asked, “You get that?”. The Stanford team replied affirmatively. The ‘o’ followed, once again confirmed by Stanford. But as Kline pressed ‘g,’ the system crashed.

This might seem like a minor hiccup in a grand scheme, but it encapsulates our internet experience today. The intention was clear and noble — creating a network of interconnected computers to democratise information. But the reality? Fragile, unpredictable, and prone to unexpected outcomes.

Today, our clicks, scrolls, and digital interactions differ greatly from Charley’s attempt to ‘login.’ They may seem insignificant but can lead to unforeseen consequences, such as privacy breaches or data misuse. Every piece of data we generate gets stored, often monetised by companies in ways we might not be aware of, let alone approve.

Flash forward to 2004. Mark Zuckerberg launched “Thefacebook,” the prototype of today’s Facebook, from his Harvard dorm room. Its mission was to connect students across the campus. Early adopters remember the sense of community, the thrill of connection, and the power of shared information. There was no hint of the privacy breaches, misinformation campaigns, and echo chambers we grapple with today.

Just like Kline’s failed “login” attempt, the execution has led to unintended consequences. Our digital Wild West was born from the highest of aspirations: connection, knowledge sharing, and democratisation of information. But it has become a frontier of vulnerability and exposure, where trust is continually eroded.

The time has come to regain control, to recapture the excitement and optimism of those early days, but without the naivety. As we navigate the digital landscape, we must take the lessons of our past to heart and find a path forward that involves companies, governments, and individuals working in concert. We must strive to transform the digital Wild West into a society of informed digital citizens where data privacy and security are the norm, not the exception.

Today, every click, scroll, and interaction we make online leaves a digital footprint collected and often monetised by companies. This data has immense value, fueling targeted advertising, personalised experiences, and business insights. But it also brings about profound concerns for privacy and security.

While users are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about these issues, they often need more tools, education, and infrastructure to make informed, reasonable, and consistent decisions about their data. The current situation feels akin to a digital Wild West, with users feeling vulnerable, exposed, and unsure who to trust. This state of affairs is not sustainable and erodes the very foundation of the digital economy: trust.

The responsibility for data privacy and security does not rest solely on companies. Governments and individuals also have crucial roles to play. For companies, the path forward involves adopting robust internal data protection policies and practising transparency about their data collection and usage practices. Governments must legislate and enforce comprehensive data protection laws reflecting the digital age’s realities. Meanwhile, individuals must take ownership of their data and the choices they make around it to be more informed and responsible digital citizens.

The Roadmap

  • Companies: Be Transparent and Ethical — Businesses should communicate what data they collect, why, and how they use it. They must ensure ethical data collection and usage practices, prioritising user consent and privacy. Providing users with easy-to-use tools to control their data should be a standard, not an exception.

  • Governments: Create and Enforce Robust Legislation — Governments must create comprehensive data protection laws for the ever-evolving digital landscape. These laws should protect citizens’ digital rights while holding companies accountable for misuse. Regulatory bodies should have the power and resources to enforce these laws effectively.

  • Individuals: Become Informed Digital Citizens — Users must actively manage their digital privacy. This means educating themselves about privacy policies, learning how to use available tools to control their data, and discerning about sharing personal information online.

  • Collective Action: Encourage Education and Discussion — Organisations, educators, and influencers must foster digital privacy and data security dialogue. Schools, universities, and workplaces should incorporate digital literacy into their curriculums, empowering individuals to navigate the digital landscape confidently.

The hate machine

The idea was simple: a platform where voices could be heard, ideas could be shared, and connections could be made. It was a virtual town square, buzzing with conversation.

But as Twitter grew, so did its darker side. A toxic underbelly emerged beneath the surface of witty banter and viral trends. The once-friendly platform became a breeding ground for online harassment and hate speech. It was like witnessing a promising utopia turn into a dystopian nightmare.

Now, let’s shift our focus to the present-day Bluesky, the decentralised alternative to Twitter. With its lofty goal of creating a safer, more inclusive digital landscape, Bluesky faced its challenges. A controversy erupted when the moderation team hesitated to ban an individual who issued a death threat against a Black user. The incident sparked a fierce debate about the platform’s ability to protect marginalised communities while upholding its decentralised values.

In this age of racial inequality and growing social consciousness, such incidents carry immense weight. They force us to confront the fragile balance between freedom of expression and the imperative to create a safe online environment for everyone.

The Bluesky/Blackness debate has become a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle to tame the untamed corners of the Internet. It is a stark reminder that our digital world is not immune to the issues plaguing our society.

The Bluesky moderation debate should not be a debate; the Black community should never have been an afterthought in developing content moderation. The fact that there is any debate at all urges us to reflect on our power and responsibility as digital citizens. It reminds us that the Internet is not a separate world but an extension of our society, where the battles we fight offline are mirrored in the pixels and lines of code.

With the rising prevalence of online platforms, an alarming surge in online harassment and hate speech has been observed. These toxic behaviours have overshadowed our digital lives, whether aggressive comments on social media posts, anonymous threats, or organised hate campaigns.

This problem is not just concerning; it’s corrosive. It dissuades participation, suppresses voices, and can even lead to severe mental and emotional harm. The urgency to address this issue has never been greater, yet the sheer scale of the Internet and its anonymity make this challenge complex.

A comprehensive approach to minimise online harassment and hate speech must involve everyone — users, companies, and governments. Companies should provide users with practical moderation tools and stricter community guidelines. Governments need to enact and enforce policies to protect individuals from online harassment. And we, as users, need to take an active role in fostering respectful and inclusive online communities.

The roadmap

  • Companies: Develop Effective Moderation Tools and Enforce Guidelines — Social media platforms and online communities must invest in developing more sophisticated filtering and moderation tools. This would allow users to customise their online interactions, effectively curating what they see and who can engage with them. Companies should also enforce stricter community guidelines and take swift action against users who violate these rules.

  • Governments: Enact and Enforce Policies — Governments worldwide must strengthen legislation to protect individuals from online harassment. This may involve redefining legal boundaries for online behaviour, establishing clear consequences for violations, and providing resources to help victims of online harassment.

  • Users: Foster Respectful and Inclusive Online Communities — We can shape the online culture as users. This could involve standing up against hate speech when we see it, reporting inappropriate behaviour, and fostering positive conversations.

  • Community-led Efforts: Create Safer Spaces — Online communities can also take proactive steps to self-moderate, like creating voluntary moderation teams to monitor interactions. User-led initiatives can effectively set the tone of conversations and foster a sense of collective responsibility for maintaining a safe online environment. But this cannot happen solely at the expense of marginalised communities; it cannot be the sole responsibility of the black community to combat the hatred designed to eradicate their existence on a platform over which they have little power or control.

  • Leveraging Technology: Harness AI and Machine Learning — Advances in technology can play a pivotal role in combating online harassment. Machine learning algorithms can be trained to detect and mitigate hate speech, cyberbullying, and other forms of online harassment.

Lies, damn lies

In the summer of 1848, a humble Welsh village was entangled in a web of confusion and chaos. It all began with a seemingly innocuous encounter between a young boy and a geologist. As the story goes, the boy stumbled upon a shiny, mysterious rock while exploring the nearby mountains. Entranced by its gleaming surface, he presented the specimen to the geologist, who recognised it as something extraordinary — a gold nugget of immense value.

News of the discovery spread through the village like wildfire. Excitement and greed filled the air as residents dreamt of newfound riches and opportunities. People abandoned their daily routines, hastily traded their professions for pickaxes, and flocked to the mountains for their glittering treasures.

But here’s the twist: the geologist, a cunning trickster, had fabricated the story entirely. The golden nugget was nothing more than an ordinary rock skillfully painted to resemble the precious metal. The power of misinformation was so potent that it set an entire community ablaze with anticipation.

The repercussions were far-reaching. Families squandered their savings on fruitless mining ventures, neglecting their livelihoods to pursue a fantasy. Trade in the village dwindled, and the fabric of trust frayed as neighbours accused one another of secret stashes and illicit dealings. The consequences were economic, social, psychological, and even emotional.

The tale of the Welsh village serves as a striking parable for our modern era, where the rampant spread of misinformation, or what we now call ‘fake news,’ has become an urgent challenge. With its speed and anonymity, the Internet is a vast playground for false narratives and rumours, eroding the foundations of truth and trust. The consequences are not confined to a single community but resonate globally, impacting public opinion, stoking fears, and even shaping the outcomes of critical elections.

Are you ready for the second twist? That Welsh village never existed. But dropping that story in a piece of long-form researched and — I hope — a relatively well-written article made it pretty damn believable. Even in the context of a challenge to the integrity and truthfulness of the content we consume?

And that, as they say, is where the trouble begins.

As the Internet increasingly becomes our primary source of information, one of the most urgent challenges we face is the rampant spread of misinformation and ‘fake news.’ It’s a problem that’s more than just frustrating or misleading; it can be downright dangerous, impacting public opinion, inciting fear, and even influencing the outcomes of elections.

The speed and anonymity of the Internet make it an ideal breeding ground for misinformation, allowing rumours and false narratives to spread like wildfire, often before the truth can put its boots on. This issue goes beyond fact-checking; it’s about trust, accountability, and truthfulness in our digital conversations.

Addressing this challenge requires a collective, comprehensive effort to foster a culture of accountability among internet users, content creators, businesses, and even governments. We need stricter fact-checking measures, digital literacy education, and a system that holds those who intentionally spread misinformation accountable.

The roadmap

  • Content Creators and Businesses: Implement Stricter Fact-Checking Measures — Content creators and businesses must be more rigorous in verifying the information they put out. Platforms can detect misinformation using Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing. They can also collaborate with external fact-checking organisations to validate the accuracy of content before it’s shared.

  • Governments: Enforce Accountability — Governments must establish stricter regulations to hold those who intentionally spread misinformation accountable. This could include fines, penalties, or even removing certain privileges for repeat offenders.

  • Educators: Promote Digital Literacy — Schools and educational institutions should incorporate digital literacy into their curriculums, teaching students to discern reliable sources from unreliable ones, understand the importance of cross-referencing information, and question what they read online.

  • Individuals: Practice Critical Evaluation — We must be vigilant about the information we consume and share. We can double-check facts, scrutinise sources, and challenge narratives that seem too convenient or provocative. We must also hold ourselves accountable for the information we disseminate within our networks.

  • Tech Community: Innovate and Collaborate — The tech community can play a significant role by innovating solutions to detect and combat misinformation. Collaboration between platforms to share best practices, research, and technology can also contribute to a more effective response.

A house divided

Approximately 2.8 million Australians, representing 11% of the population, find themselves on the fringes of the digital realm, deemed “highly excluded” from digital services due to a lack of affordable internet access or the necessary digital literacy. These individuals, often the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged, are left grappling with many challenges as essential services, banking, and government functions increasingly migrate online.

This digital divide, characterised by glaring disparities in digital connectivity, manifests in various ways. Residents in regional areas face more significant obstacles in accessing the Internet than their urban counterparts. At the same time, those with limited financial resources find it arduous to connect and afford the necessary services. The absence of crucial infrastructure further compounds the divide, leaving remote communities grappling with limited access to even essential phone services — let alone the vast opportunities of the online world.

The ramifications of this digital exclusion are far-reaching and profound. It hampers people’s ability to participate fully in society and access the services vital to their livelihoods. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare these disparities, highlighting the plight of individuals unable to access crucial support and resources due to their exclusion from the digital realm. What should be a fundamental right — the ability to connect, learn, and thrive in an increasingly digital society — becomes an elusive aspiration for those left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Recognising the issue’s urgency, efforts have been made to bridge this gap. The Australian government has committed to making its services accessible online by 2025, but concerns persist that this transition may further disadvantage those without internet access. Regional telecommunications infrastructure is being improved, with millions of dollars allocated to address the disparities. However, while commendable, these efforts do not fully address the complex web of challenges faced by those living in remote areas, far from the convenience of face-to-face services.

Internet access has become a fundamental right rather than a luxury. It’s a gateway to education, employment, healthcare, communication, etc. But a stark ‘digital divide’ persists, leaving many people — especially those in remote, economically disadvantaged, or marginalised communities — without reliable internet access.

This inequality perpetuates and even exacerbates existing social and economic disparities, limiting opportunities for education, career growth, and social mobility. It hampers the potential of countless individuals and communities, inhibiting their ability to participate in and benefit fully from our increasingly digital society.

Addressing this lies with public and private entities, like businesses, governments, and philanthropic organisations, spearheading initiatives to ensure everyone can access the Internet. This should go beyond simply providing access — it should also involve efforts to ensure people have the necessary devices, digital literacy skills, and affordable plans required to use the Internet effectively.

The roadmap

  • Businesses: Invest in Infrastructure — Tech companies, telecom providers, and other firms could invest in infrastructure to provide internet access in remote, underserved, or economically disadvantaged areas. This could involve setting up Wi-Fi hotspots, launching satellite internet services, or developing affordable data plans.

  • Philanthropic Organisations: Donate Devices and Offer Subsidised Plans — Philanthropic initiatives can play a pivotal role in making internet access more affordable. They could focus on donating devices like laptops or tablets to those in need or partnering with service providers to offer subsidised or even free internet plans.

  • Governments: Enforce Internet as a Right — Governments should recognise and enforce Internet access as a fundamental right, like water or electricity. This could involve legislation to ensure universal internet access, subsidies for low-income households or public initiatives to provide free Wi-Fi in public spaces like libraries, schools, and community centres.

  • Education Institutions: Provide Digital Literacy Programs — Schools, universities, and adult education centres can offer digital literacy programs to equip individuals with the skills they need to use the Internet effectively. This could involve teaching basic computer skills, using different software or apps, and even online safety and digital citizenship lessons.

  • Individuals: Advocate and Volunteer — Individuals can advocate for policies promoting universal internet access, volunteer in community initiatives aimed at digital literacy, or donate used devices to those in need.

Cleaning up the horseshit

In 1894, a phenomenon known as “The Great Horse Manure Crisis” took hold in major cities worldwide. At the time, horses were the primary mode of transportation. They pulled carriages, carts, wagons, and omnibuses. But along with their usefulness came a significant problem — waste. Each horse produced an estimated 15 to 35 pounds of manure per day. In New York City alone, with around 100,000 horses, that added to over a million pounds of waste daily.

This refuse littered the streets, creating a breeding ground for flies and disease. It was also a logistical nightmare, with no adequate systems for its removal. Many cities were struggling under the weight of the crisis, with some predicting that by the turn of the 20th century, the streets of London and New York would be buried under nine feet of horse manure. This was the age of the “peak horse,” and it was clear that something needed to change.

The first International Urban Planning Conference was convened in New York in 1898 in response to the crisis. However, the conference ended without any significant solution to the escalating problem. The manure crisis seemed insurmountable, as horse-powered transport was deeply entrenched in the society and economy of the time. It was the status quo, much like the current state of our Internet, with its dominance of algorithms, commodification, and a lack of genuine connection.

Then came an unexpected solution: the invention and mass adoption of the motor car. Cars not only addressed the issue of manure but also revolutionised transport, making it faster, more efficient, and more reliable. The car was a disruptive innovation, changing the face of cities and paving the way for the rapid urban expansion that marked the 20th century.

While initially, there was resistance to the automobile — they were loud, scared horses, and their speed was seen as dangerous — regulations adapted, roads were redesigned, and eventually, cities changed their structure to accommodate them. This change didn’t happen overnight. It took vision, effort, and a collective will to switch from horse-drawn carriages to motorised vehicles.

Today, we face an escalating crisis of misinformation, privacy breaches, and algorithmic bias that threatens to undermine the Internet’s initial promise: a space for connection, knowledge sharing, and global collaboration.

The solution to our current predicament will not be simple. It will require substantial innovation, policy and education changes and a user behaviour shift. But if history serves as a guide, we can take heart in knowing that seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved with the right blend of innovation, regulation, and societal will.

Even if it involves getting our hands dirty in the process.

The roadmap I’ve written out is a tough sell. By fostering self-regulated ad content, robust data protection, user-empowered moderation, and a culture of validation and responsibility alongside private sector-led digital inclusion efforts, we can create an enhanced internet experience. While the challenges are complex, the ultimate goal is to create an internet that values depth of engagement and genuine human connection over shallow virality and commodification.

Governments worldwide are crucial in enforcing laws that make the Internet safer and more user-friendly. This involves creating and implementing regulations around how companies use and monetise personal data, with stricter penalties for those who do not comply. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a step in this direction.

Governments can and should regulate the transparency of algorithms used by tech platforms. Governments can help users better understand what they’re being shown and why by requiring companies to disclose how their algorithms prioritise content. This can help break echo chambers and filter bubbles often resulting from hyper-personalisation.

Public authorities can also promote digital literacy by incorporating it into educational curricula. Teaching students how to evaluate online content critically can lead to a more discerning audience, which can push platforms to prioritise quality over engagement.

Tech companies are at the forefront of the fight to create a better internet. By innovating in user privacy and data protection, these companies can transform the Internet into a safer place for users. This might include developing more secure encryption techniques, designing better methods for user authentication, and enhancing transparency about how user data is utilised.

Tech companies can alter how they design their platforms and algorithms. Instead of optimising solely for engagement and virality, platforms can focus on promoting quality, depth, and diversity of content. This could mean tweaking recommendation algorithms to highlight content based on its popularity, informational value, and reliability.

Lastly, tech companies can explore new business models that are less reliant on advertising. This could involve creating subscription models, micro-payment systems, or patronage models that reward creators directly, reducing the emphasis on ad revenue and potentially increasing the overall quality of content.

Individual Internet users also have a role to play in shaping a better internet. Users can choose to support platforms and content creators that prioritise quality over quantity and depth over virality. This might involve being more discerning about what to click on, share, or like, or even paying for quality content through subscription or donation models. Moreover, internet users can protect their privacy by being careful about what information they share online and using tools and settings to limit the data they provide to tech platforms. This might include using privacy-focused browsers, restricting cookies, and using VPNs.

Finally, individuals can contribute to a more positive internet culture by engaging in thoughtful, respectful online discourse, reporting harassment or hate speech, and promoting inclusivity and diversity. By becoming more responsible digital citizens, individual users can create ripples of change that may lead to a more balanced, thoughtful, and user-friendly internet.

The primary existential challenge in building a better internet is the likely resistance from companies profiting from the existing structure. Many major platforms, particularly social media networks, have developed business models that heavily depend on advertising for revenue. The optimisation of algorithms for engagement, virality, and monetisation, which tends to encourage shallow engagement and commodification, serves to maximise this ad revenue. As such, these companies will resist changes that could decrease their profits, even if they would improve the Internet’s overall quality and user experience.

The cost of implementing changes on such a massive scale is another significant challenge. For example, developing new business models that are less reliant on advertising could necessitate substantial investment in research and development, not to mention the potential loss of revenue during the transition period. Similarly, promoting digital literacy and educating users about the value of quality content requires extensive resources. Furthermore, regulating algorithms to ensure transparency and promote diversity of content would require the development of new monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, which could also be costly.

Creating an internet environment that limits harmful content while preserving freedom of speech is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, ensuring the Internet remains a space for free and open expression is essential. On the other hand, there is a pressing need to curb the spread of harmful content, including fake news, hate speech, and cyberbullying. Striking the right balance requires careful policy-making and a deep understanding of technology and human behaviour. It also necessitates ongoing dialogue between stakeholders, including tech companies, governments, civil society groups, and users.

Remember Chrissy? We started with her lived experience of the Internet — one that would have felt incredibly alien and hostile to the people who built its foundations. The thing is — there is no one Chrissy. There’s a generation. People who have grown up without knowing a world before the Internet lives in a reality where the digital and physical realms are so intricately intertwined that one can barely function without the other. This generation lives in a time where social, political, and personal interactions are conducted just as much online as offline, if not more so. They’re the digital natives for whom the Internet isn’t a tool or an invention but an integral part of life, as essential as the air they breathe.

They cannot imagine a life without memes, emojis, viral videos, social media influencers, and the ability to instantly connect with someone halfway across the globe. They were born into a world where asking a question no longer meant a trip to the library but a quick search on Google, where the concept of waiting to see a movie until it came out on DVD seems as antiquated as a telegram.

So far — we’ve failed them. The magic we’ve given them has turned out to be a series of smoke and mirror music hall tricks. We have failed to create a safe digital environment. That supports them. That encourages them. That fosters and serves them.

But despite this, they are also a generation of problem solvers, innovators, and creators. They’re creating new forms of communication, driving social change through online movements, and redefining what it means to be part of a global community. They are leveraging the tools they’ve grown up with to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to social justice. There’s the same spirit flowing through some of these creators today, barely out of their teens, that flowed through the young ideologues who built the Internet itself.

Our role today isn’t to critique this generation, belittle them, or grumble about their internet usage. Instead, our responsibility is to collaborate with them as effectively as possible, aiming to create an internet that avoids the mistakes and issues prevalent during our era.

Building a better internet is no small feat, but given the Internet’s integral role in modern life, it is a challenge that must be met head-on. By addressing these obstacles and pushing for meaningful change, it is possible to shape an internet that encourages authentic connection, respects privacy, promotes high-quality content and provides a safe environment for all users.

Despite the complexity, creating a better internet is possible and necessary for the well-being of its users and society. The idea is not to completely dismantle the existing system but to tweak it, make necessary adjustments, and complement it with new models that promote depth, authenticity, and value in online interactions.

The transformation towards a better Internet is a collective responsibility. This responsibility lies not just with governments or corporations but every individual who uses the Internet. We all have a role to play, whether advocating for greater algorithm transparency, promoting digital literacy, or supporting new business models prioritising quality over quantity.

You, me, and everyone else doomscrolling through 24-hour blocks like so many zombies need to rethink the Internet we have built. The question is not whether we can make an internet that doesn’t suck — but whether we have the collective will to do so. To challenge the status quo, question our online habits, and actively strive for a better digital space. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to create an internet that enriches our lives rather than diminishes them. We owe it to each other to clean up the horseshit.

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