Philosophy

The problem we are aiming to tackle: information gatekeepers in the internet

Gatekeeping has been defined as “the process by which the billions of messages that are available in the world get cut down and transformed into the hundreds of messages that reach a given person on a given day.” Large Internet companies have become the information gatekeepers of our access to the Internet, exerting control over pieces of information that we will see (or not), with the following consequences:

Thousands of companies you’ve probably never heard of are collecting and storing vast amounts of raw data about you, all in the name of commerce. They’re called data brokers, and they are collecting, analyzing and packaging some of our most sensitive personal information and selling it as a commodity... to each other, to advertisers, even the government, often without our direct knowledge. What’s being compiled and sold about us includes our religious beliefs, ethnicity, political affiliations, user names, income, family medical history, what medications we take and diseases we have, even our sexual orientation. Data brokers are inferring this information about us by tracking our online activity: what websites we visit, what we buy online, our likes and dislikes, closest friends, bad habits, even our daily movements. We have lost control of our most sensitive information. [Source].
Facebook has become a lynchpin of the distribution of news and information around the world. News organizations are uncomfortably reliant on Facebook to reach an online audience. According to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 44% of adults in the US get their news on Facebook. Facebook’s popularity means that its algorithms can exert enormous power over public opinion, and on what information can be published.

Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, experienced Facebook’s abusing editorial power in September 2016, when Facebook deleted Aftenposten’s post containing the “napalm girl” image—a historic photograph of the Vietnam war— under the justification that images with naked people cannot be uploaded to their platform. Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, addressed Facebook’s CEO Mark Zukerberg, stating “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society. [...] I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way.” [Source].
The “filter bubble” is a personalized shield that internet companies create to show us more of what we already like and less of what we don’t. It is our own personal, unique universe of information that we live in online, produced by the social network site’s algorithms deciding what is the most “suitable” content for each of us. What stuff goes into our filter bubble depends on who we are, what we do and how we think. We don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, we don’t actually see what gets filtered out. The information we take in is so personalized that we’re blind to other perspectives. We are served stories with a similar standpoint as our own, written by people who agree with us. We live in our own world, and we don’t see the world outside. The Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see. [Source].
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Zuckerberg shaped Facebook according to this proposition, making users have a unique identity all throughout the website. This is problematic, because, in real life, individuals are constantly switching between identities and persona based on the context they are in. Nobody puts their membership in Alcoholics Anonymous on their CV. We do not behave the same way when having a beer with friends, taking our mum to the doctor, or delivering a presentation to our boss. It is not that we pretend to be someone that we are not; instead, we emphasize some aspects of our identity, and reduce others, all based on the particular context we find ourselves in. [Source].
The creative class – especially musicians, journalists and photographers — has borne the brunt of disruptive technologies. Whereas in the past they got paid for their work, nowadays they receive benefits on an informal basis, being paid not with money, but with reputation and barter. There is a tiny token number of people who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else lives on hope. There’s not a middle-class hump. It’s an all-or-nothing society. [Source].
Users invest their time and energy in creating and maintaining their profiles on a social network site. If they decide to migrate to a different online platform, their profiles can’t be easily exported. That is when they discover that they have no control over their content and network, their data is held hostage.

To illustrate, Facebook lets users download most of their Facebook data, but it is not usable by third parties in any automated way. And while it does let you export your Facebook friends’ email addresses, you need to ask your friends to let you first (it would be faster to go to all of their profiles and just copy their email addresses manually, which is exactly what everyone who wants to export their Facebook contacts is trying to avoid.) Obtainment of your network’s email addresses is hindered on purpose, because this is the key to exporting your contacts and importing them elsewhere. [Source].

Our response: the PoP framework

The PoP framework is a web-based software which aims to break the information monopoly by linking autonomous websites and platforms together, allowing them to interact with each other and become part of a wider network composed of different communities. The PoP network has the capability to link together multiple websites such as blogs, forums, news outlets, magazines, and so on, allowing the users from each website to interact with each other, without the need to join a centralized service such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

PoP is designed to dissipate the centralized control of information and behavior by gatekeepers, through the following considerations:

Privacy

Content ownership is retained by individual websites and platforms. Instead of user data being stored in servers owned by a single powerful entity, such as Facebook or Google, content is instead spread over different websites, with respective website owners storing their own data on their own servers. This has important implications on privacy concerns, and disrupts the ease of electronic surveillance by governments that tap on data collected by big Internet corporations.

Monopolies

The same Internet corporations who are important gatekeepers lose their power because the design of the PoP network is such that no single entity can accumulate enough power to dictate how content publishers will use their services. If any PoP became rogue, it could be circumvented by having other PoPs aggregating the same platforms/websites. The individual websites also have full control over their affiliation with any PoP, and can choose to disengage anytime they want.

Filter bubble

Different PoPs can aggregate the same platform, yet present different filtered results from it. The term “filter bubble” was coined to describe how algorithms employed by Internet companies to customize content for users often block out the things in our society that are important but complex or unpleasant, rendering them invisible. As such, the user is not limited to the “filter bubble” from just one gatekeeper, but can decide among many of them, and choose the one that best represents his/her interests.

User identity

On the subject of user identities, Facebook as a leading social network site defines the hegemony of a one-dimensional identity within an online social network, as evidenced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stance that having different presentations of self towards different people shows a lack of integrity. A user of a PoP needs to create a user account on the platform he wishes to post content to, and he can choose to have different profiles or personalities on different platforms. While all these accounts can be managed from a centralized location (eg: using OAuth), the user has the ultimate control on what personal information to display based on a platform by platform basis.

Digital economy

As argued by Jaron Lanier, the middle class is not economically benefitting from digital economies even though they contribute invaluable data. The primary beneficiaries of wealth generated are those who aggregate and route the data. As a solution, he proposes a two-way linking system that would point to the source of any piece of information, enabling an economy of micro-payments to take place, thus compensating anyone for their original material posted on the web. The PoP framework would enable such a system to be implemented. Each node on the network could decide to give its content for free to its aggregators, or charge a fee for it. The node could then use these proceedings to pay those users who contribute content to it.

Welcome to the PoP framework!
Break the information monopoly

the PoP framework is open source software which aims to decentralize the content flow and break the information monopoly from large internet corporations. Read more.


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