Is Edward Snowden the Father of Web 4½ ?

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“The system we learn says we’re equal under law

But the streets are reality, the weak and poor will fall

Let’s tip the power balance and tear down their crown

Educate the masses, We’ll burn the White House down”

Geoff Tate, “Speak.Operation: Mindcrime

Whether some good has come out of the massive leaks, or you think that the U.S. politicians deserved some comeuppance, ambition shouldn’t obfuscate the fact that one of our own willfully and maliciously compromised our national security.  But this isn’t about Eddie’s guilt or innocence, his rights as a citizen of the world or the justification of his actions. As I travel the tech Meetup circuit in my region, I notice a recurrence of a theme that has not been as coalesced as it is now that we are understanding the full impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA – and likely many other organizations – are not only monitoring us, but collecting and storing data on each of us.

Privacy.  And by extrapolation, Consumer Control.

I’m not attempting to define what the next ‘Web’ generation may be or suggest that we breezed past 4.0 already.  I’m not even sure people agree on the first four versions, but a sampling of the thousands of opinions on the Web may lead one to define the boundaries loosely as this:

-Web 1.0: The ‘Read Only’ Web – Companies and organizations published information. Users read it.

-Web 2.0: The ‘Read/Write’ Web – Companies and, more importantly, users began adding their voice to the Web through blogs, video, and commentary.

-Web 3.0: The Semantic or ‘Intelligent’ Web – When everyone began to find their voice on the Web, and it became overwhelming. Intelligent Search came of age (i.e. contextual, personalization, image) and sometimes it found what you’re looking for before you even knew you wanted it. Think: Amazon or Netflix recommendation engines.

-Web 4.0: The ‘Networked’ or ‘Symbiotic’ Web – Hundreds of millions of users – friends and strangers – interacting, learning, publishing, curating in a mass network of information made public. This version featured Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. As Fred Wilson’s investment thesis goes: large networks of engaged users disrupting large markets.

So where are we now?  Still in the fourth generation, but in a rush to bring mass transparency to the world for all the good it could do – bringing light to third world atrocities, revealing first world corruption, inciting revolution for a subjugated population – we have lost a sense of Privacy, and ultimately, as individuals, have lost control of our own digital experience.  As is the nature of creative entrepreneurs and promising startups, they are challenging the status quo, attempting to give back control to the user.

In just the first 50 days of 2014, I came across a number of young companies that are specifically addressing the concerns of the lack of Privacy within mass networks, some of whose activity is clearly in response to the aftermath of the Snowden leaks and awareness of NSA and government surveillance.

While at the inaugural NJ Startup Meetup, I was introduced to a promising entry into the crowded mobile communication space, Inbox Messenger App, a graduate of the TechLaunch accelerator. Besides the requisite features of any messenger platform, Inbox focused a portion of the pitch on its promise of Privacy; from the ability to mask your screen from nosy onlookers to a notification whenever a screenshot of a message you sent has been captured. No doubt that begins to place the control of information back to the user, but the interesting feature that spoke to a fear, not about protection from other individuals but protection from governments, is the ability to delete a message forever – from the user’s phone as well as the recipient’s phone.  And from the Inbox servers too. 

Similarly, out by the Bay, Privacy and consumer control is at the forefront of a much bigger effort in creating the Humin phone app, where the founders expect you will soon replace the native app that ships with your device.  The tool offers promising features such as the ability to choose between texting and calling by changing the direction you swipe on a contact’s picture. But what really sets Humin apart is the foundation with which it operates on a systemic level; its creation of and adherence to a Magna Carta of Privacy in the new millenium – the Humin Rights for a Digital Age. From the DLD14 Conference, founder Ankur Jain talks not only about how critical it is to build software ‘Privacy first’ but also the importance to make such efforts transparent and open sourced:

“[The Humin Rights are] a set of principles every company can adopt that actually protects user information by, for the first time, moving it back to the users control….all of your data is processed on your phone…they never touch our servers.  Ever.  There is no traffic coming in and out of our servers.  It is directly on your device.  Even if someone did want to hack us or the NSA did come to us, they could search around and the information doesn’t exist there.  It’s all local to you.  And so we open sourced this set of humin rights that any tech company can adopt to show you can provide incredible value to users without having to sacrifice their Privacy.”

One industry that has been sorely lacking Privacy and consumer control is online advertising. Since the dawn of the Internet age, companies have been trying to acquire your information and profit from it, mostly without your explicit knowledge. Yes, there is a significant industry effort and organized initiative toward “Self Regulation,” but this is a massive feat. Some companies, like ours, have built their technology to challenge that status quo. They, as we do, believe consumers deserve a better experience and more value from advertising – and that includes an expectation of Privacy.

It has been interesting to watch this transition into a greater concern for consumer rights, control and Privacy.  Just a few years ago there was a collective feeling of exasperation and resignation to the fact that the pervasiveness of the Internet meant the end of individual control of one’s own data and activity.  But it seems that Edward Snowden, perhaps even knowingly, with what he has brought to light, has begun to change our culture back to one that concerns itself with personal Privacy and protections.  We could indeed be living the Web 4½.

 Marc Baskin is the co-founder of inControl Ads, a technology platform that puts consumers in control of their advertising experiences across all devices and screens. He has helped several start-ups go from just a few people, to public companies. Marc frequently writes pieces regarding the industry, as well as culture, history, and science.

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