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The platform tide is turning

“Instead of becoming more like technology companies or remaining beholden to platforms, publishers could help to build the internet they need.”

The internet isn’t something that just happens to you. It’s not a force of nature, like air or the ocean. But that’s how most media companies have treated it: an unforeseeable event that came from nowhere and left a financial crater in its wake.

The media’s arms-length approach to technology hasn’t just decimated business models and put publishers out of business — it’s allowed democracy to be undermined on a massive scale. A single private company’s service is now the way a huge share of Americans discover news and learn about their world. No company should be allowed to become this powerful. Mark Zuckerberg said the age of privacy was over eight years ago, but for many, the implications only became clear recently, in a series of damning revelations and testimonies before Congress.

More attention is finally being paid to these issues. In 2019, big tech companies will respond to overwhelming public opinion and lawmaker concerns, fundamentally changing the way they view privacy. Browsers will block third-party tracking by default. New legislation, inspired by Europe’s GDPR, will prevent invasive apps from spying on your calls and contacts. The adoption of always-on microphones in the nation’s living rooms will begin to slow. As revelations about technology’s role in political wrongdoing become increasingly serious, the surveillance capitalism that has defined the mobile internet era will come to a halt.

From there, publishers will need to make some serious decisions.

They could continue on their path to reform themselves into the shape of technology companies. They could seek large sums of venture capital funding, committing themselves to growth at all costs. They could remain all-in on trusting technology companies to provide their audiences, their publishing platforms, and their monetization engines, outsourcing everything aside from content production until every aspect of their businesses is owned and controlled by someone else.

Or they could take back control.

Instead of becoming more like technology companies or remaining beholden to platforms, publishers could help to build the internet they need.

We talk a lot about building the media institutions of tomorrow, but all the innovative revenue models in the world won’t save you if you reach your audience through a company that wants to own your business. In parallel to new kinds of media institutions, we need new media infrastructure: new ways for people to discover stories and publishers that are immune to monopolies and advertising. Rather than technological monocultures subject to the whims and interests of rich white men in Menlo Park, we need a decentralized internet that serves all people.

There are signs in this direction. Look past the puzzle-box get-rich-quick cryptocurrency companies and you’ll find a new generation of utopian technologists building decentralized architectures that will yield new opportunities for inclusive sharing and discovery. You’ll find sleeper technologies like ActivityPub which are beginning to coalesce to form an open social web. And you’ll find a new generation of publishers who are interested in building their newsroom platforms in collaboration because they realize that it’s in everyone’s interests to have a common platform that anyone can use.

These are all open source technology platforms: Their development is open to anyone to participate in or benefit from. The internet, and on top of it the web, have always been built in this kind of open, collaborative process. It’s not just something that happens to you — it’s something that you can take with both hands, influence, and build. Media companies need to join these communities and participate, either individually or through a nonprofit body that exists to represent them all.

As our relationship with data changes, our relationship with the software that underpins our businesses must, too. In 2019, the time has come for media and democracy to stop being shaped by the internet — and instead for the internet to be shaped by them.

Ben Werdmuller is working on the Unlock Protocol.

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