"At some point, we have to stop expecting technology to make itself unattractive to abusers, and start expecting our legal systems to punish abuse."
Imagine, if you will, an online world in which there is no such thing as Google. No Amazon, no Facebook... No such thing as a cookie. No such thing, indeed, as a tracker... Sounding good? Then rejoice, dear reader. For this is not imaginary. This is a real place...
As we plunge into the autumn of 1983 - metaphorically at least - a protocol called Gemini offers us a new online ecosystem. Known as Geminispace, the subcultural new environment promises greatly improved privacy. And that's a promise on which, at the present time, Geminispace delivers.
Gemini made its low-key entrance during 2019, as a fresh-start alternative to the World Wide Web. It comes with some built-in ethical defences, such as strict limitations on data transfer, and markedly greater simplicity - which makes villainous corruption a lot more difficult.
Simplicity is a hugely important element in any next-gen Internet protocol. The WWW's governing monoliths have consistently exploited over-complexity as a control mechanism, and it's for long been clear that this is one of several key dynamics that keep us imprisoned in their spyware-peppered lair.
The less we understand, the less we can do for ourselves, and the more we have to rely on cybertech corporations, who relentlessly exploit our dependency for their own evil. Conversely, it follows, if even a technophobe can assimilate and audit the technical makeup of the pages they visit, bad actors have little scope for exploitation. Gladly, a technophobe can assimilate and audit the technical makeup of a Gemini page. It really is that simple.
"The weakening of copyright is rarely recognised by privacy advocates as a factor in the degradation of privacy. Some who do recognise it are in denial because, hey, FrEe CuLtUrE and shit! But here's the truth... Robust copyright prevents monopolists from creating content silos, which herd the public away from small creators' homes and into massive, corporate surveillance dens."
To date, the most controversial element of Gemini has been its insistence on the use of HTTPS encryption. But encryption is good, right? More private. Why would it be a problem?
The problem is that encryption is based on a system of certification, which can, ironically, be used by a website administration (or in Gemini's case a 'capsule' administration) to "cookie" the visitor. There's also the inconvenient fact that the "Certificate Authorities", who gatekeep access to the domains, are typically surveillance companies. They include the likes of Cloudflare, Google and Amazon.
"Let's Encrypt is basically Google."
But even the supposedly impartial Let's Encrypt is deeply untrustworthy - founded as it was by Google shill the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who 'coincidentally' also aided Google's drive to force encryption on the entire Web via its HTTPS Everywhere extension. Like the rest of the "nOnPrOfIt" tech cartel, Let's Encrypt is basically Google.
Even when there's a severing step between the visitor and the "Certificate Authority", you still have the problem that surveillance capitalism is defining which sites are, or are not "legitimate". As arbiter of valid certification, the surveillance industry essentially dictates the right to exist, and we've already seen how that little number pans out on the WWW.
Voices of opposition to Gemini's mandatory encryption say it runs counter to freedom, and will foster both censorship and user-ID schemes.
They have a point. There have already been Gemini capsule admins trying to exploit certification for gatekeeping or tracking purposes. And whether or not these lone actors were able to achieve what they wanted, I doubt it would take Silicon Valley long to set up a surveillance ring if the rewards were sufficiently attractive. It's hard to imagine any valuable, well-populated digital environment that the Internet's monopolist cartel would not mark up as an acquisition target.
I admire the motivation behind Gemini, and it does have many merits. I think in particular that a true DIY-compatible content delivery spec, and a browser market open to small developers, are essential to restoring freedom online. But do we need a new ecosystem in order to simplify the Internet?
The Gemini FAQ says yes, and explains its rationale...
"The problem is that deciding upon a strictly limited subset of HTTP and HTML, slapping a label on it and calling it a day would do almost nothing to create a clearly demarcated space where people can go to consume only that kind of content in only that kind of way. It's impossible to know in advance whether what's on the other side of a https:// URL will be within the subset or outside it."
I don't entirely agree. Whilst it is indeed impossible to predict the antics a website may or may not attempt to play, limiting the browser would necessarily limit the website. Mapping out much more simple standards for Web publishing, and then limiting independent browsers to those standards only, would inherently protect against sites attempting to operate outside of the agreed protocol.
The reason I regard simplification of the existing Web as a more viable route to freedom than building a new environment, is that if the new spec gained enough traction on the client side, existing sites on the WWW would quickly accommodate it in a bid to maximise their traffic. In other words, new standards in a separate ecosystem can only protect that separate ecosystem. They don't have a viral, knock-on effect that helps improve the wider Internet.
I don't believe Geminispace could resist even a modest corporate control grab in the event of mass adoption.
I think expecting it to do so would be to overlook the tactics Big Tech has used to monopolise the World Wide Web. The cyber giants have used hopeless public weaknesses like laziness, ego, vanity, greed, and a craving for sensory stimulation, against the masses. And those vulnerabilities don't disappear because the underlying tech of the environment is different.
The cyber giants will stop at nothing to seize power, and they have a box of proven tricks they know will work. For example, they exploit weak copyright law to wrest control of the Internet's primary attention bait: content.
The weakening of copyright is rarely recognised by privacy advocates as a factor in the degradation of privacy. Some who do recognise it are in denial because, hey, fReE CuLtUrE and shit! But here's the truth... Robust copyright prevents monopolists from creating content silos, which herd the public away from small creators' homes and into massive, corporate surveillance dens.
"Not only is Geminispace currently oversubscribed with content for the insular tech-head - it's not really equipped to attract much else."
Gemini does help to stem the effect of this, since it's not really designed as a rich media experience, and it's rich media that most characteristically drives Big Tech's silo-bait. Classic silos like Google Images and Pinterest would not exist at all without pictures, so Geminispace, at least in its present text-total form, is shielded from some types of Silicon Valley landgrab.
Gemini's focus on text also negates other archetypal tech giant stalking techniques, such as the content delivery network (CDN). Rich media created an imperative for CDNs, and without that imperative, websites, or Gemini capsules, are far more likely to remain single-source/single-origin - which better preserves general privacy. So Gemini as it currently stands does make mass corporate surveillance more difficult in a range of ways.
But the broader issue is, here we have an Internet protocol protecting itself through sacrifice, when better laws would make sacrifice unnecessary.
"Duckrosoft, Braveazon and Mozoogle collaborate on great new way to add photos and video to your Gemini capsule! 100% free, 100% PRIVATE and ENDORSED BY THE EFF!"
Cue viral spamming of all known social media by the usual glut of VPN-caged gullibles, and that's another avenue of freedom destroyed in one vapidly-written advertorial.
In a nutshell, Gemini is presently staving off a Big Tech invasion not because of any technical conundrum, but because...
Why point two? Why would the mainstream audience not care about Geminispace?
One of the standout lines in Gemini's introductory summary relates to the type of available content, and says...
"[T]oo much of it is tech stuff."
But how many visual artists are going to flock to an ecosystem with no creative formatting potential? How many historians are going to flock to an ecosystem with no native citation potential? How many lifestyle writers are going to flock to an ecosystem with no e-commerce? How many musicians are going to flock to an ecosystem with no audio players? How many satirists are going to flock to an ecosystem with, at best, extremely limited means to mimic the satirical target? Not only is Geminispace currently oversubscribed with content for the insular tech-head - it's not really equipped to attract much else.
Most of the WWW's freely-accessible content is motivated by rewards that just aren't available in Geminispace. We can bemoan "content marketing" (and I regularly do), but without it, it's hard to imagine what new, unpaywalled informational material there would be left for Web search to surface.
The majority of useful content being churned out on the Web today is created either to push an e-commerce solution, or to go behind a paywall, or to push the content that's going behind the paywall. Sure, we can find a mass of people talking about themselves and spouting secondhand opinions no one asked for, but where's the value in that? The content that best attracts public attention is normally driven by financial reward.
And once you introduce financial reward systems to Geminispace, Big Tech comes charging towards the door with a billion dollar battering ram. Followed by the spamlords, the crypto-shills, the listicle drones, and everyone else whose sole worldly interest is money.
The sacrifices that Gemini, or indeed any other online ecosystem, must make in order to fend off a Big Tech invasion, are the same sacrifices that will assure its eternal obscurity. At some point, we have to stop expecting technology to make itself unattractive to abusers, and start expecting our legal systems to punish abuse.