What will the internet of the future look like? | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

Are we on the cusp of another Internet revolution? We, according to technology experts gathered in Berlin for a conference organized by the digital learning platform ada.

They said new technology could fix the web as we know it in the next decade – both when it comes to how it was built and what it looks like.

On a technical level, tech idealists hope that blockchain technology will help build a new decentralized architecture based on the Internet. In this new “Web 3” era, the idea goes that users instead of a handful of tech giants will be able to control their data, their privacy, and what they create online.

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“This is reinventing how the internet is created in the background,” said Portugal-based writer Shermine Voschmegir. “It’s a complete paradigm shift.”

At the same time, companies around the world are working on technology to revolutionize the way we browse the web.

In October 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of the tech giant as “Meta”.

Seeing them: Instead of scrolling through websites or apps, people will soon be moving through a 3D version of the internet dubbed a “metaverse” — a kind of digital landscape where users can work, buy things, or meet their friends, and where physical and digital realities converge.

“It’s going to be the internet, so to speak,” said Konstanz Ossi, who leads community and innovation policy efforts for Germany, Austria and Switzerland at US tech giant Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

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But with companies like hers pouring billions into developing the next generation of the internet, digital rights activists warn that companies will eventually want to make money on their investments — and that this could thwart efforts to give users more power over their digital selves.

“The metaverse could become the most invasive monitoring system ever,” said Micaela Mantegna, an Argentine lawyer and digital rights researcher.

Internet Evolution

To understand where the next generation of the Internet can go wrong, it’s helpful to look at how we got here.

As early as the 1960s, researchers began to connect computers around the world. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the invention of the Web and web browsers around the world made the web available to anyone who was able to afford an Internet connection.

Since then, the Internet has turned every aspect of society on its head, from the way people do business to how they find information or how they interact with each other.

“Everything has changed because of the internet,” said Myriam Mikl, CEO of ADA and professor of corporate communications at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “And the Internet itself has changed as well.”

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During the first phase of the web, people browsed the web from their desktop computers and primarily browsed through search engines. That changed in the first decade of the 21st century with the advent of social media and the mobile internet, giving rise to the online world as we know it today.

At the heart of this “Web 2” are online platforms such as Meta Facebook and Instagram or, more recently, messaging services such as Telegram.

These programs helped dissidents in authoritarian regimes organize protests or give a voice to marginalized groups. But information revelations such as the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal have shown that it is also used to spread hate, amplify disinformation and influence democratic elections.

Meanwhile, a small number of big tech companies like Meta or Alphabet, the parent company of Google, have dominated their own sectors of the Internet economy.

More power for users

To return power to individuals and societies, people like author Shermaine Fuschger suggested rebuilding the web using decentralized public blockchains — databases that everyone can search and share on computers around the world.

Such “Web 3” could be collectively controlled by users rather than a few powerful gatekeepers, the idea says – making it easier, for example, for creators to make money from the work they publish online.

Now, the question for billions is: Will this plan work?

Not everyone was convinced: Jürgen Geuter, a Berlin-based internet theorist known online under the pseudonym “Tant,” doubts that decentralized architecture alone is enough to return power to users. He pointed to cryptocurrencies, an area in which some companies are making millions by developing software needed to access the core decentralized network.

“Technology is never neutral,” Geuter said.

Web3 vs. Metaverse?

To prevent the metaverse from being controlled by a few influential players, experts say users should be able to interact with each other no matter where they are in the metaverse or how it is used. This would also be a change from the web today, where apps are mostly “walled gardens” that don’t allow users to send messages or money between different apps, for example.

“There is an understanding that things need to change from Web 2,” Constanze Ossi acknowledges at Meta. She noted a new initiative announced in June, with which her company, along with other tech giants and standards-setting bodies, wants to discuss interoperability standards. But some big players like US tech giant Apple are missing out on the effort.

Las Vegas CES Macy's Consumer Electronics Show

Metaverse could grow to $8 trillion market by 2025, investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates.

At the same time, there is a certain irony in the fact that the world’s biggest tech giants say they want to invest in building a new internet infrastructure that could, eventually, curb their market power.

Some observers warn that once companies try to capitalize on this investment, some of the ideals of a decentralized Web3 architecture may end up as collateral damage.

“The corporate version of Metaverse will be an evolution of capitalism,” said Argentine lawyer Michaela Mantegna.

Furthermore, she added, the immersive nature of metaverses can exacerbate some of the problems plaguing Web 2 today, from misinformation to online harassment. Some users have already reported experiencing sexual harassment in early versions of the metaverse.

Mantegna cautioned that as technology develops, the devices used to access the metaverse could at some point begin to monitor sensitive information such as users’ brain activity.

Activistin I'm Michaela Mantegna

Attorney Michaela Mantegna warns that the metaverse could become ‘the greatest surveillance system ever’

To protect such data and prevent surveillance on an unprecedented scale, she said, governments and regulators must establish rules for the metaverse.

First efforts underway: Earlier this week, the European Union announced a global regulatory initiative for the next year.

But Mantegna said governments need to hurry to avoid the mistakes of today’s Internet – a network that, in her words, “was designed with good intentions but poorly executed.”

“We don’t want the metaverse to become a bad sequel to the Internet,” she said.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW’s editors compile what’s happening in German politics and society. You can register here for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter.

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