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Markus Luczak-Roesch argues it’s not just Twitter, the whole Internet is broken and we’d better fix it soon

Public Policy / opinion
Markus Luczak-Roesch argues it’s not just Twitter, the whole Internet is broken and we’d better fix it soon
Getty Images.

By Markus Luczak-Roesch*

If the debate about Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter tells us anything, it’s that people – including those in governments – don’t understand how the World Wide Web works.

We know that the algorithms Twitter uses to recommend content can guide people to develop more extreme views, but what is considered extreme has changed since Musk’s takeover. Many things he considers free speech would previously have been thought to be derogatory, misogynistic, violent or harmful in many other ways.

Many countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand as the co-initiator of the Christchurch Call, are looking to Twitter and other platform providers to allow analysis of their algorithms and more transparency about their effects on individuals and the social fabric.

But what the Christchurch Call doesn’t address is a much more fundamental question that governments should think about with urgency. Is it appropriate that the infrastructure to host citizen discourse and engagement is in the private and profit-oriented hands of multinational data monopolies?

Privately owned social media platforms now house a significant portion of important public debates essential to democracy. They have become core to the modern public sphere, and as such they have to be considered a critical part of public infrastructure.

But they are set up to collect and monetise people’s data. It is time for governments to help their citizens take back control of that data.

The Web is broken

The World Wide Web started out as a global network with a set of open technical standards to make it easy to give someone from a remote computer (also known as the client) access to information on a computer under someone else’s control (also known as the server).

Embedded into the Web standards is a principle called hypertext, which means the reader can choose to follow hyperlinks, browsing the global network of information in a self-directed fashion.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, people created their own websites, manually authoring HTML pages and linking to content other people had published. This was superseded by content management systems and – maybe more importantly – blog software.

Blogs unlocked content publishing for the masses, but it was only when social media platforms emerged – commonly also known as Web 2.0 – that literally everyone with access to the Internet could become a producer of content. And this is when the Web broke, more than 15 years ago. It has been broken ever since.

Social media platforms not only put content beyond the control of those who created it, they also sit as a monolithic interface between a whole generation and the actual Web. Gen Z has never experienced the decentralised nature of the technologies that make the apps they use work.

Each social media platform instead tries to make the entire World Wide Web just one application on one big server. This principle is true for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and all the other social media applications.

The outcome is that platforms collect interactions in order to profile users and guide them to content through “recommender” algorithms. This means people can be directed to products they can purchase, or their data and behavioral insights can be sold to other businesses.

Aerial view of people and connecting lines between them
Social media platforms collect interactions to profile users and guide them to content. Getty Images.

How to fix the Internet

In response to the disruption from Musk’s Twitter acquisition we have seen governments and institutions set up their own servers to join the decentralised microblogging system Mastodon. These institutions can now validate the identity of users they host and ensure their content lies within their own terms and potentially legal requirements.

However, taking back control of microposts is not enough to fix the broken Web. Social media platforms have made attempts in the past to entrench more fundamental functions such as payments and banking. And people have been arbitrarily locked out of platforms, without a legal way to regain access.

Considering wide-ranging regulation on its own won’t solve the problem in the long term and at a global scale.

Instead, governments will need to assess which digital services and data currently hosted on social media platforms are critical parts of modern democratic societies. Then, they’ll have to build national data infrastructures that allow citizens to stay in control of their data, protected by their government.

We can expect a new ecosystem of digital services to develop around those data infrastructures, but one that doesn’t disenfranchise individuals or make them the product of surveillance capitalism.

This is not a Utopian vision. The Flemish government in Belgium has announced the establishment of a data-utility company to facilitate a digital ecosystem based on personal data vaults. Citizens control these vaults and any digital services that need the data interact with them if given permission (for example, public transport payment systems or content-sharing systems like Twitter).

Various blockchain businesses want to make people believe their technology allows a “Web3”, but the technologies to achieve this vision are already available and they leverage the original standards of the World Wide Web. Web technologies for decentralisation and openness have been called Web 3.0 for about 20 years now. They have matured into robust market-ready products for personal data vaults.

Governments now have to build the technical back end with regulatory oversight to ensure algorithmic transparency and trusted digital transactions. We need rich data infrastructures, run by data-utility companies.

The technologies and expertise are readily available, but we need greater awareness of what real technical decentralisation means, and why it will protect citizens and democracy in the long run.The Conversation

*Markus Luczak-Roesch, Associate Professor in Information Systems, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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It sounds like a lot of really shady things were going on at Twitter before Elon Musk took control.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.


Yep, and you can tell the people who don't like the sunlight by how hard they push mastadon.  It's like the ctrl left version of truth social or gab.


These private companies exert power on behalf of those who have wealth and power, to ban dissidents and all sorts of wrongthinkers, to deny them services etc. We should hope for better, but the State is pushing with full force to normalise widespread censorship, to suppress dissidents using hard and soft government power and to ensure the neoliberal plunder continues.

The establishment prefers this arrangement since they can hide behind the mask of private companies 'moderating' content. They will not change this arrangement willingly.


The web is just humanity evolving and will find its way.

Along with the issues covered are many more positives.

In days gone by Putin and Xi, Iran and other dictatorships would have controlled  the narrative as understood by its citizens via a very narrow media. Instead they are now struggling to prevent their citizens accessing the millions upon millions of website and social sites and apps - all providing ever changing news information sources (because they cannot both control web access and simultaneously have a competitive economy - they too are continually trying to balance the efficiencies and benefits vs control of the web). Only if we dont try to control it will it eventually give people a means to topple the dictators.

When crimes occur, when disasters occur immediate communication channels make rescues and resolutions far far faster to enact. all provided via commercial satellites and internet sites and apps. Again if we try to control the web it will slow down these processes and innovations.

The sharing of information via the web leads to massive innovation and idea sharing - for example ideas to solve climate issues.

For me the good far outweighs the bad. We need to police the internet but very very carefully to ensure we dont give control of it to any central people, whilst having fair consequences for those who use it badly.





A very good comment. 


If lying or misinformation was actually a crime, how many politicians would be in prison.  Is it hypocrisy when they want to silence others for doing what they do regularly?


Much of the success of social media applications is because they offer platforms and features that don't exist in open standards.

Take email - it's essentially remained unchanged for 30 years. It's still fundamentally insecure: insecure in transit, plus lacking any identify verification. You don't really know if someone emailing you is really that person, or vice versa. It's rife with spam, phishing, abuse. 

So no surprise that your local walking group or neighbourhood watch ends conversing on a proprietary platform like facebook, and not an email group.



If you're worried about security why would you give all your data to Fakebook? (Which also has lots of people who aren't who they say they are and is rife with phishing, spam and abuse...)


So the Internet is broken, since too much of it is in the hands of giant profiteering tech companies. That much I can agree with.

The author's suggestion on how to fix it, then, is to put the Internet in the hands of governments instead.

What a terrible idea.


This could have been a really interesting opinion piece.

it’s a shame you didn’t discuss the Democratic Party’s funding spend on Twitter.  Hunter Bidens laptop etc etc 

mastodon - hall monitors 


Funny how this article wasn't written in the last 15 years, but suddenly Twitter is a problem now that Elon Musk has taken over. 


Not funny at all. Musk is enabling fascists, racists, and deluded conspiracy theorists, etc., to run their disinformation and bullying on twitter.


This is false.  By the way, isn't Ye still on instagram?


Yes, now Elon has put the cat amongst the pigeons, the narrative controllers don't like it one little bit.


There's a big difference between personal data vs sensitive data.

Social media can have all my mundane personal data - yawn

Only a fool would share sensitive data on the www

Why do we always have to dumb down society to protect all the fools?


It seems to be a control thing, govt seems to treat everyone as if they were the dumbest member of society.


What you think is mundane might be very useful (and valuable) to some people 


What the twitter files show, is that if you let govt control what is misinformation and what is allowed to be said on social media, they will use that to stop anyone pointing out the wrong and bad things they are doing.  They want to control what is said, for their own benefit.  That's why it's important to have free speech, so you can keep the govt accountable before it gets to the point of China where they control everything you do.


I was saddened to read this article. 

Then, I read the comments.  Very happy that people get reality and do not follow the .gov narrative quite so easily.

I should check less often, articles such as this are odious.


Just to confirm that I understand the central thesis of this article.... We can't trust the multiple centralised organisations that control our data. So, we should fix the problem by having one centralised organisation in control of our data. 

And, the organisation that you can trust is the government?? Because the government is somehow all good and kind and never goes astray in a totalitarian way?

This is honestly just more evidence of academic detachment from reality. 


To be completely fair, these major companies don't actually need our data at all for much of what we assume they use our data for.

For the most part a combination of your connections ("friends" or people local to you) and your internet activity is enough to form a persona in which to advertise to you. They do not need to know every bit of detail. There's a great Walmart pregnancy story around somewhere which is worth the read. Knowing nothing other that spending habits, Walmart was able to form the spending persona of a pregnant person and therefore advertise pregnancy products to people who followed those patterns. They advertised to a 16 teen, the parents were furious until the plot twist, she was pregnant. Unsure whether this is a legit story but this is the real way in which data is used.

If what this article is suggesting is true, that centralized government can be trusted with our data, then where is the NZ cookie policy to support this theory. We're far behind the curve here.

What's much easier than centralized data is restricting behavior tracking. Cookie policy, as annoying as it is, is what we're after.