Obi Nwosu is the CEO and co-founder of Coinfloor, the UK's longest-running Bitcoin exchange. He has over 20 years’ experience building online marketplaces and bringing virtual currencies to tens of millions of people. Obi writes The Road to Bitcoin Hegemony, a weekly recap of some of the most impactful developments in Bitcoin.
Some of us can remember when the Internet was a wild, lawless, but limited land. We didn’t have social media, but we could find information: for our school homework, perhaps, or to catch up on our local football team; to find quotes from favorite films, or guitar tabs so we could finally figure out Stairway to Heaven. Back then, the Internet, such as it was, was the fruit of tens of thousands of fanbois (and girls) taking their time to create websites and share their passion with the world.
Then Web 2.0 arrived, and everything changed. For the first time, anyone could make their own, permanent mark on the Internet, create a social profile, and start adding to the conversation. And the Big Lie of Web 2.0—swallowed whole by almost every Netizen—was that We The People were in control of the Information Revolution.
But as we now know, we were always the product, never the consumer. The early Web’s blossoming of creative freedom was being closely watched by governments and big business, who saw a once-in-a-century opportunity to oversee and oversell to us. A handful of tech firms built enormous empires; spending billions on growth hacking and “sticky” UX to attract and retain users within their walled gardens. And having imprisoned us, they changed the rules—as Facebook did last week.
By now you’ll have seen WhatsApp’s new Ts&Cs, which require users to consent to Facebook using your metadata, including who you’re talking to, how you’re connected to them on Facebook, where you both are...even what devices you’re using and how often you chat.
Those of us who dreamed of a deregulated, decentralized Internet have watched with deep sadness, if not horror, as the online world slithered further towards what Harvard social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” This model, Zuboff argues, "unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data [...] fabricate[s] into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later [...] [s]urveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
From Boomer, Gen-X, Millennial to Zoomer, everyone believes the Web to be their right. But we increasingly feel that Big Tech sees it as a privilege; something we can only access if we pay for it with our personal data. Manning and Snowden only confirmed what we always knew: Big Brother is watching you. The Internet is nothing but a giant Panopticon—a high-walled prison of constant, inescapable observation.
Last week’s WhatsApp update shows us that everyone has a breaking point when it comes to personal privacy and self-sovereignty. Privacy-by-design platforms like Signal and Telegram have seen tens of millions of downloads in the first full week of the year — a sign that people are fed up with further encroachments on their data. And it is inevitable that technologies that provide these will eventually succeed the current, privacy-killing systems prevalent today.
The big consumer technology stories this decade will be about Bitcoin, Blockchain, TOR, Open Source Software, Zeronet.io, the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), Mozilla Hubs, and all the other technologies designed to break the stranglehold Big Tech exerts on us. These are all part of a movement to replace surveillance capitalism—call it the FAANGopticon, if you like—with a system of privacy and digital self sovereignty.
Once again, this is where Bitcoin shows the way. It remains the only proven, decentralized technology that can revolutionize an existing, universally-used medium: money.
Don’t expect the regulators to do much about this. There is talk about Congress conducting a huge new antitrust campaign against Big Tech—a 21st century version of the commission that broke up the Standard Oil monopoly. But this misses the point, which is that anti-trust is more than just monopolies: it is the defining concept of our age. People don’t trust their politicians, they don’t believe the media - and they certainly don’t trust our tech overlords.
The answer is not to tinker around the edges; to haul Mark Zuckerberg before a Senate committee for the umpteenth time. Big Tech won’t change; it won’t lose its ravenous appetite for user data, just as Big Money won’t stop printing dollar bills as if inflation were something that only happened to people in the 20th century.
In an era of universal mistrust, it’s only natural that people begin building the future themselves. People invest in Bitcoin precisely because, being decentralized, open, and immutable, it’s something they trust. And while Bitcoin is in the vanguard of this movement towards privacy and self-sovereignty, the revolution won’t stop there. The standards and practices we are developing in Bitcoin today could well prove to be the foundation of a new, more democratic, more trusted and above all decentralized web: a return to all the principles we were promised; the kindling of a spark that Big Tech did everything in its power to extinguish.