The last couple of weeks have seen a spate of horrific news items about assaults and murders of young women in the country, such as in Hyderabad and Unnao. What added insult to injury was what I saw on my Twitter feed: In screen after screen of outrage, horror and condemnation of such incidents, I could not help but notice a prominent ad of the world’s largest condom company. The sheer insensitivity was appalling, but it is quite possible that this particular company was unaware of this error. Clearly, no employee of that company or its ad agency had decided on placing this ad there. In fact, no human being had. The ad was there because an “intelligent" algorithm decided that since the word “sex" was mentioned so often in the feed, perhaps someone was in need of a condom.

This has happened before. Global car companies have been mortified to see their latest model being advertised along with Google searches for catastrophic car accidents. Skin whitening lotions have found a perfect place to talk about themselves alongside racist YouTube videos around “White" supremacy. The examples are legion, and it is not that these platforms do not care. Large social networks and search engines constantly try and tweak their machine-learning algorithms, and use advanced artificial intelligence techniques to mitigate this. They deploy tens of thousands of people across the world to do the thankless jobs of spotting these and other travesties.

The problem, however, is neither the technology, nor the intentions of the advertisers. Nor even the ineffectiveness of the fact-checking armies. The problem is the business model.

When the internet was created by Tim Berners-Lee and its other original architects, it was conceived of as a distributed set of computers directly communicating with one another, and each sharing a bit of the load of managing and maintaining the network. This was Web 1.0 and it worked very well. However, it had one problem. There was no business model around it.

With Google came Web 2.0, with two fundamental advances over 1.0: new business models and increasing centralization of the internet. Advertising is the chief business model of this version, but we also have marketplaces (Amazon), shared economy (Uber), content (Netflix), and SaaS (Salesforce and Microsoft). Web 2.0 companies make a lot of money now, but only a few of them do and these are getting fewer. The internet, driven by powerful Web 2.0 business models led by hyper-targeted advertising, is getting more centralized. Algorithms rule these models.

However, there is a backlash building up now, both against the mindless selling of our personal data, as well as the uber-centralization of the internet in the hands of a few multibillionaires. In response, new business models are emerging, heralding the emergence of Web 3.0—a revolution that promises to return the internet to the hands of users. It leverages newer peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies, such as blockchain, to build services that allow explicit consent over data and distribution of revenue among all contributors. Such technologies are inherently decentralized, and thus, provide a hard technology ceiling to the accumulation of power and data in the hands of a few.

These new technologies have been a revelation, but the real forces driving Web 3.0 are new business models. Bitcoin and Ethereum are examples, where there is now a currency or an incentive to monetize content, where people pay for services that they want using micro-transactions, rather than a giant, faceless entity paying for it through advertising, and selling them in the bargain. Nothing is free on the internet. If it is, then you are the product.

Web 2.0 passed through a long, difficult journey to success. Web 3.0 will be as arduous and protracted. However, the revolution has begun and thousands of startups—Steemit and 1Ramp in social networking, Mastodon and FireChat in messaging, Zokama and LivePeer in video—have started heralding it. What this will mean is that users will choose what they get free, in exchange for selling innocuous parts of themselves and their data, and what they pay for, and get paid for, using these powerful new incentive mechanisms.

So, Web 3.0 is taking us back to Web 1.0, but with a new, decentralized business model. Hopefully, with the reducing dependence on advertising and soulless targeting by algorithms, we will see fewer advertisements that shock us. The original crime will remain unpardonable, but at least the use of it to generate money will cease.

Jaspreet Bindra is a digital transformation and technology expert, and authorof the book ‘The Tech Whisperer’

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