The change of Facebook's name to Meta is a hint to the general public of where social media and digital sovereignty risks taking us in a future "virtual" world.
PARIS — The first bricks of the internet emerged in post-World War II California at the crossroads of a double ideology: military and libertarian, based on the virtues of decentralization. It was all about inventing a network infrastructure that was resilient to targeted attacks. It also allowed for individuals to be emancipated through a new set of capabilities, including in communication, interaction and learning, facilitated through a microcomputer.
The central authority — a state or a server that overly centralized information and computing capacities — are absent from this decentralized architecture. It guarantees individual freedom, freedom of creation and freedom of expression on the internet. The networking of individuals can also produce new collective dynamics. It is still this framework and these principles that underlie the production and consumption of popular services that the vast majority of us use.
Commodifying and centralizing the internet
However, for the last 15 years or so and with the advent of Web2, the digitization of social dynamics and their commoditization have made large social media platforms far less healthy. In a way, they are undermining the founding mission by drastically re-centralizing access and content.
Obviously, these companies provide many services to users: e-commerce, ad infinitum, ever more efficient services to find what we are looking for — and even what we are not looking for —, and entertainment to the point of saturation. But above all, they are increasingly watertight ecosystems, very widely monetizing personal data and stealing our attention in a way that makes us very dependent on these major players. And then, the announcement of Facebook and its metaverse. In no way should we be happy about this despite the promises of economic growth, investment and massive recruitment.
This hyper-centralization of exchanges is the antithesis of the utopias of the internet pioneers
What has led the big digital service providers to hegemonic positions is largely due to their singular business model. It is often based on free access and its counterpart is an organization of exchanges that prioritizes intermediation and the platform. The network effects that are then produced are powerful attractors that reinforce any acquired position to the detriment of newcomers. Consumers lose freedom of choice between sites but gain a depth of content on these platforms.
However, all users today have preferences that can still be expressed through various sites. So, we don't (yet) connect virtually via the same platform we use to buy books and we don't look for a job where we entertain ourselves. Not yet. With the metaverse, it will be about connecting to an overlay that comes on top of the services and platforms we are used to. In this sense, we are talking about a meta-platform model, a platform of platforms where all interactions — love, trade, food, professional, educational, etc — could be aggregated in one place.
The metaverse would be a platform of platforms where all interactions could be aggregated in one place
Social media needs serious regulation right now
On the side of the private players, the battle rages for the spot of "winner takes all". Facebook is clearly a leader with the Meta rebranding, but Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, to name a few, all have similar projects. As there is little chance that the avatars of metaverses will be interoperable or transportable, then as for the smartphone, users will evolve in one and only one universe: the one with the strongest network effect. Let's remember that this aggregation of behaviors, which remains unprecedented, comes with the promise of a formidable capture of personal data, including our most intimate information.
So is this a problem? In terms of digital sovereignty, the stakes are high. In terms of individual freedom, it is unprecedented if tomorrow a metaverse becomes dominant. In terms of the authority of the public and the state, it is a profound reimagining of this role, since monetary exchanges, education and work relations could be organized outside of official institutions. This hyper-centralization of exchanges is therefore the antithesis of the utopias of the internet pioneers, even if it corresponds in every way to libertarian principles: the disappearance of the state.
It must be an open and transparent world
What are the alternatives? At this stage, we see two. First, we must urgently evaluate the stakes at play even if none of political leaders seem to grasp what they are. We must plead for the opening of these meta platforms. Now more than ever, the metaverse must be an open and transparent world, in its code and in its algorithm. It is therefore urgent that competition law moves in this direction.
Secondly, we must call for a re-decentralization of the web as advocated by one of the founding fathers, Tim Berners Lee, with his d-web initiative. A web3 is still possible, based on blockchain, cryptomarkets, NFTs and peer-to-peer exchanges. The initiatives are still fragmented and difficult to access for the general public. Nevertheless, this is an area we need to prioritize in order to guarantee sovereignty and individual liberties.
Raphaël Suire is a professor in economics and innovation management at the IAE of Nantes University in France.
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