Maciej Ceglowski’s Internet Repair Kit

From Library Babel Fish, June 17, 2015

Many conversations about privacy have been happening around various digital water coolers where I hang out, sparked by the work of the NISO Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems. (NISO stands for National Information Standards Association; this Mellon-funded project is an attempt to broker an agreement between librarians, publishers, and vendors about what we mean when we say “patron privacy” and how systems might be developed that don’t violate it.)  Privacy is something librarians have long felt strongly about because it’s hard to explore ideas while worrying that what you’ve read might be used as evidence against you. When this idea was first formulated in documents such as the ALA Code of Ethics (1939), librarians had no idea how massive the capacity for data gathering, storage, and analysis would be in 2015, but they knew it was important.

One of the links someone shared (I’m sorry I don’t recall who) was a rediscovery of something that I read and liked last year. I had forgotten how great it is; it may have gotten even greater as the world caught up with it. It’s “The Internet With a Human Face,” a talk that developer Maciej Ceglowski gave at a conference in Düsseldorf last year. It’s depressing, funny, smart, and thought-provoking, and offers some really good ideas about what’s gone wrong with the internet and what might make it better.

We tend to think of the internet as a decentralized system, that its lack of a single center is its strength. But now a small handful of very large companies dominate our use of the web. Web innovation is currently funded through two tenuous things: the promise of targeted advertising that doesn’t work very well and “investor storytime” – a dependence on a handful of very wealthy investors who can be persuaded that better advertising is coming with this new, exciting startup. (Ceglowski calls pitches like this “the world’s most targeted ad”). I’ve often wondered what will happen if this data bubble bursts, if this edifice that depends on advertising will vanish into air, thin air, and all our revels will be over. Ceglowski also points out another possible dramatic ending. Our biggest tech companies have headquarters located in seismic hot zones. Talk about technological disruption.

He has some ideas about what needs fixing, and I think it’s good stuff, consistent with the recommendations made in Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath

  • Limit the collection, storage, and sharing of data gathered by websites. He doesn’t advocate for prohibiting data collection entirely – aggregated data can be used in delightful, creative ways. But don’t allow the creation of huge enduring memory banks that the people whose data it includes cannot control.
  • Limit sharing of data with third parties. A lot of data mischief comes from it being passed along and repackaged in various ways.
  • Let people know what data is being collected about them and let them download it.
  • Give people the right to delete their accounts and all the data associated with them.
  • Give people the right to decide whether or not their data can be collected. People currently don’t feel surrendering their personal information is a fair tradeoff (and it isn’t). Having the choice to opt in may give companies an incentive to make people want to participate (assuming that data collection is handled responsibly).
  • Encourage decentralization, which was one of the original design principles of the internet. It’s not healthy that a small number of American companies commands the time and attention of the planet, especially when their business model is based on surveillance.

Obviously, none of this will be easy. But at least with public opinion turning against the surveillance-industrial complex and with savvy and ethical developers like Ceglowski spelling out what we could do, I have hope.