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The internet, as we know it, is dying as false prophets pursue profits

Jefferson Galt

My grandmother, who worked in a police station, used to say "you know when you are getting old when policemen look young." It's strange to realise that many of today's senior people in offices have never known a world without the internet or a phone in their pocket.

Most have never lived through or shortly after a major conflict, even by proxy, and they generate arguments and fights where there is no need. This is where our next generation of senior politicians will come from. They are, literally, disassociated from the history that created the society they were born into. It is into the space that this lack of understanding of why things are as they are that internet companies move, providing them with an alternate reality that they choose to believe in rather than question. And that alternate reality is barrelling towards a future where the only certainty is uncertainty. They just don't know it because their false prophets in pursuit of profits don't tell them.

The great hope that the internet (in the form of the World Wide Web) would turn out to be a force for good, that it would become the world's repository of the combined knowledge of mankind through the ages, is still there, some might say surprisingly.

But it is increasingly difficult to find and companies are increasingly making it more difficult and diverting you to places you really don't want to be.

When Google launched, it was under the tag-line "do no evil." And yet, today, Google does more harm than good. It actively promotes criminal conduct. Its subsidiary YouTube is a repository for illegally republished material. The company claims to be leading the world in so-called artificial intelligence yet it appears to be unable to perform the simplest checks on content.

Facebook never pretended not to be evil and it has lived down to its egomaniacal founder's principles ever since, only faltering when its own so-called artificial intelligence software went off-piste and began to create its own language, ostensibly to prevent humans finding out what it was doing. Facebook's failure to properly identify and monitor its users are one huge hole in its credibility and its policies of creating fake pages to compel people and businesses to sign up is, simply, abhorrent. Worse is the policy that says that you can check out, as in suspend your account, but you can never leave because your account and data will forever remain in Facebook's servers. Almost all the major American-based social networks say that, once you post, your data becomes theirs, to do with as they please. ByeBye data protection and privacy.

It is these things that those who have grown up with the internet have not yet understood, or if they have understood, don't care about. They happily allow Apple and Google to gather minute data about their whereabouts, their patterns of behaviour, the places they go (and therefore the things they do) and to use that data to create a finely grained profile of them and the people who appear in the same locations. Worse, they, and "app developers" demand that this information is collected, along with far more data. While the world went mad about the already widely known systems talked about by Edward Snowden, the fact is that the social networks know far more about you than the NSA ever will.

As cars become ever more computerised, the data from black boxes gives location, speed, even style of driving but that same information is collectable by phones that are not physically connected to the car. Indeed, it's now presumed that everyone carries their phone everywhere so phone location data is regarded as an alibi.

The dangers of connected devices such as fridges, home security systems, even televisions are barely discussed yet it is the micro-computers in CCTV devices that have been used to launch large scale malware attacks.

The internet generation has grown up with the 'net as village pump where anyone can say anything about anyone without consequences, as my pal Nigel Morris-Cotterill put it in a paper he presented on the abuse of the internet in 1998 "Everyone knows your name but no one knows who you are." Here we are, 19 years on and nothing has changed.

To be fair, that generation is not the first to find that its data can be collected and used to interpret their most intimate details. Before the internet, there was mail order shopping and, in the UK there were two dominant companies, Freemans and Great Universal Stores, later GUS. GUS realised that it could track the lives of its customers and make targeted direct mail campaigns. From the moment someone started buying baby related stuff, that child would be a sales channel for age and gender related toys and clothes, and of course all the paraphernalia of the first post natal months. As retailers such as Mothercare and Boots realised the benefits of this via loyalty cards, Britons became highly profiled and so did their families. Even shops that take cash payment ask for name and address, supposedly for the guarantee on goods. In this, then, the Millennial generation are not new nor newly naive. Little do they know, they have been in retailers databases since before they were born. GUS built its customer data unit into an intelligence company which collected data from loyalty and store credit cards and, after a couple of acquisitions and a name change, became Experian, perhaps now the global leader in KYC information across much of the world.

So, if Gens X and Y were not put off by the blatant collecting of their most intimate details, from condoms to black ties, why should Millennials even think about it?

The biggest threat to the internet is its increasing lack of usability.

Take, for example, search engines. Today, it is almost certain that the first entry at the top of a Google search will be the illiterately named Wikipedia. Disturbingly, the site, which contains so much inaccurate, or poorly written, content as to be dangerous, is not what people are actually searching for. Nor are all the review sites, or food delivery services, that appear to the exclusion of the genuine web presence for hotels, restaurants, bars, etc. Often the whole of the front page of search results is taken up with sites that are not the sites of the businesses present in an area, for example. To simplify, when searching for a primary listing, first we have to work our way through many parasitic entries.

The failure of search engines to segregate copy/paste syndications of articles reduces to nil the benefits of the front page of news searches: any attempt to find multiple viewpoints on a story is defeated, often for two or three pages, by the endless repetition of identical material. This will continue until search engines are programmed to identify the original source and to prioritise that, then demote copy-cat content. Even worse is when this copycat content is scrape and paste content or, worse, spam articles posted to dozens of websites to improve their visibility. One thing that Millennials do value is time and the increasing demands on time by poor search results is undermining the core benefits of the internet as library.

Browsers are joining in the annoyance, especially on phones. Typing in an address creates "suggestions" - often even when this supposed "feature" is turned off. Typing the address for Marks and Spencer calls up Martha Stewart. And the habit of inserting a .com half way through what the user is typing is infuriating. The value of phones, as an instant information provider, is rapidly being curtailed by such techniques.

If we add in the fake news, the fraudulent posts, the on-line retailers who operate a switch-sell policy, and the internet is increasingly not the place it could be.

What is actually happening is this: companies are filling up the public areas with junk so that you are forced to join their ecosystems where you become fresh meat to their never-ending demands for more data to make more sales.

Are we all going to turn off and start going to proper shops? Probably not, but there is a growing reason to do so. For example, grocers who's online store promotes its best sellers and prospective customers don't even know about the good stuff unless they visit the shop, or which don't have the stock of the things they do advertise are a serious problem: it is only when the internet shopping service is properly integrated with the supermarket's stock system that grocery shopping will be fully effective on the 'net, especially for fresh food. After all, when you are preparing a dinner party, the supermarket becomes part of your just-in-time supply chain. If it doesn't deliver what was ordered, there is no time to address the problem. That's a failure. And next time, the cook knows he can't trust that supermarket.

Are we at the point where the internet will die? We are at a turning point, in relation to the WWW. It will continue, like a dirty river, to pollute our lives but, unless someone takes serious steps to fix the problems so that it is more useful than frustrating, it will revert to its original purpose of being a means of communication.

Do you want salmon in your rivers or empty plastic bottles? That's the choice the WWW faces and the handful of big companies that dominate it have a vested interest in filling it with plastic bottles.