What if we could go back in time with what we know now and sway the crucial decisions that made the internet what it is today?
I’m sure these memories will all be clouded by what I know now, but let’s just take a journey inside my head if not in history. Once upon a time, somewhere between BBS and RSS, when we all first were beginning to connect to the nascent internet we decided that we wanted everything to be free. “Wasn’t the internet created for the free exchange of ideas between academics?” we said.
Of course we’d be right about that. However, we were exactly an academic when we said it. Neither did we have an entire collegiate computer lab at our disposal. We had a 386-66Mhz with a 1200 baud modem hooked up to our serial port. But we were consumers and poorly educated about how networks work. As it turns out the internet isn’t just powered by cupcakes and unicorn farts.
But we decided that paying CompuServe was already enough and we didn’t want to pay for anything else. We got what we needed from their portal, they had a chat system, forums and games. Plus they gave us GIFs. We didn’t see a need for paying for anything else, because we couldn’t see past that to know that there ever could be anything else.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know
Now we know, so let’s pause for a moment and imagine a specific version of the baby internet and what the web would look like today if we still had the model. It isn’t a new model, and there have been some largely ineffective attempts at retrofitting it today. I’ll call it Subscriber Time, and I’ll abbreviate it SubT.
Here is the idea. We all have to pay our ISPs for their services and then we pay for everything else on the internet with our privacy. Let’s not delude ourselves on that last point. We pay for every piece of “free” content with our personal information, our habits, our interests, our consumer history, etc. Don’t dare for a single moment think that Facebook or Twitter is actually free.
There are a number of moving parts to this model that are very different than what we’re used to, so here goes the first one. In order to register a domain name, you must specify a billing address. You could use your own if you like, or there could be larger clearinghouse services similar to domain obfuscation today, that aggregate.
1) Domains have billing addresses
Next is the subscriber. They are all regulated like utilities, and our bill has two parts. The first is a fee to cover operating expenses, and the second is your “internet usage subscription”. This is a set charge though, and not a variable thing. The purpose of this second fixed amount on our ISP bill is to fund internet services. Not just any of them though. So now we have:
1) Domains have billing addresses
2) ISP subscriptions have a set SubT charge
Okay, the next part of the model may sound a little scary, but rest assured this is already happening. Your ISP keeps track of what websites you visit and how much time is spent on them. This could be done in a few ways, but they are more technical than I want this article to be. The ISP then knows what content on the internet you are consuming, and how much of it.
Now your ISP takes that SubT fee and divides it proportionally among all the internet content you’ve consumed and remits a payment to the registered billing address for each of the domains. So that gives us:
1) Domains have registered billing addresses
2) ISP subscriptions have a set Subcriber Time charge
3) The SubT is divided according to the content you’ve consumed and the domains are paid.
So let’s break down this fantasy for the modern internet. Let’s say the SubT fee is $7.20 and we’ve only used Twitter and Facebook all month. Assuming we consumed about the same amount, then at the end of the month your ISP will send $3.60 to each domain’s registered billing address. The ISP would of course pool all their customers into a single payment, but nonetheless you would have paid for the content you consumed.
Using a VPN? Pay the VPN service and let them divide it up.
Contributing content somewhere? Use a net billing system and subtract from each site you contribute to leaving more in the pool to divide up.
For the consumer, adding $7.20 to your bill seems paltry in comparison to just the taxes that are on the bill. That figure amounts to 1 jpenny for each hour in a 30 day period. It’s tiny. What does Facebook get though?
Facebook currently claims 2.41 billion active users, which doesn’t include people like me who just lurk. So let’s just conservatively round up to 2.5 billion people accessing each day. If they average out to spend 2 hours each day in total consuming content from facebook.com, that represents an annual revenue of ~$17.5 billion dollars. Which is well over half their operating expenses from 2018.
Now imagine you are Mark Zuckerburg. You are getting paid directly by your users for the services you provide, and it is definitely covering your hardware, hosting, and probably R&D budgets. All without having to place a single ad or ruthlessly harvest private, sensitive information about your users to sell. Suddenly Facebook looks very different.
Now I’ll concede that it doesn’t cover all of their operating expenses. But if the SubT was 3 pennies per hour, then the SubT on the bill would be $21.6 which isn’t all that much, and Facebook would have exceeded it’s operating budget by nearly double!
NOW imagine your Facebook. You’re profitable. Seriously profitable.
What drives the need for ads and data harvesting?Not wanting to pay cash for something that we can sell our soul for
If a company can be made profitable only by providing a service to it’s users then there would be significantly less motivation for intrusive ads, and user profiling. I will stop short of saying that it would eliminate all ads, because it wouldn’t, but the amount of aggressive advertising would be severely attenuated.
For people like me it wouldn’t make much of a difference. I’d maybe get a few pennies per year. However I know I’m small potatoes. If I wanted to make this an actual income what would I need to do?
Well today, I would 1) need to build a large userbase by creating quality content on a predictable schedule 2) place ads on my page 3) get paid by advertisers if a reader leaves my site and goes somewhere else.
In Internet 2.0, I would 1) need to build a large userbase by creating quality content on a predictable schedule 3) get paid directly by readers. Suddenly the whole paradigm shifts. I no longer need to focus on cramming as many ads into a single page because it pays more if I keep a user here. The best way to keep someone here is to create quality content.
Incentivise Qualitynot top-10 lists with 12 pages of 1 sentence content
Now of course this is a fantasy and I’m sure there is a litany of other issues that would be found in Internet 2.0. However, it could very well have been a better world. The user would no longer be the commodity sold for funding on the internet. Quality, instead of quantity, would be emphasized. Most of all, there would be a sharp decline in ads, moving towards non-existence.
It sure would have been nice.