|Issue:||Europe II 2009|
|Organisation:||Serenda Investments OU|
Andrei Korobeinik is the CEO of Serenda Investments. He has worked in Web development for the last decade, first as an entrepreneur, then as the Technical Director of an Internet gambling enterprise. Mr Korobeinik then launched his own project, the Rate.ee, social network, which became the most popular Estonian Internet site. Mr Korobeinik is still the CEO of his own social networking company, operating in more than 20 different countries and has invested in a number of Estonian Internet startups. Andrei Korobeinik studied computer science at the University of Tartu, where, in addition to IT, he studied psychology and economics.
The Internet, like any significant new technology, poses a number of serious challenges for society. In time, both the technology and ethics of privacy will evolve to meet the needs of our virtual lives and of an online society. However, until society adjusts to the social implications of these new technologies, and people get used to the exposure the Internet brings and integrate it into their daily lives, the only privacy one has online is the privacy we, ourselves, preserve.
The Internet, as we know it, has been around for some 15 years and it is developing at an incredible speed. Many things have already happened, but it is always exciting to imagine what to expect next. Half a year ago, at a conference on Internet trends, on one of the slides of my presentation about Internet privacy I forecasted that airlines would start using social networks to get more data on their customers’ tastes. They could then use the data to give you advice about hotels you will probably like, show you movies you have not yet seen or even let you know what interests you share with the passengers sitting next to you, which might be quite useful to know for a long trip. What has happened during the last few months? The largest travellers’ community site, Tripadvisor.com, has launched a social network where you can get advice from your friends about the cities you are planning on visiting or the hotels you are going to stay in. At the end of January, I have received an email from KLM airlines saying that they are launching a new social network called Bluenity.com. The goal of this network is, “to discover other travellers and meet them at any point”, not just on the plane. Good idea, but to take part you have to surrender a bit of your privacy. Internet as a platform The Internet is changing every day. New sites appear and new concepts substitute the old ones. Only three or four years ago, large Internet sites were trying to defend their user bases by any means; now, quite logically, large ‘offline’ companies are doing the same thing. However, today the situation is totally different. Large players feel that synergy is more important than competition threats. New open standards appear, allowing services to access each other’s data. One day your favourite Internet shop will allow you to discuss the content of your shopping basket with your LinkedIn friends, or your mobile operator will enrich your smartphone contacts with their pictures from Facebook. Open ID, Open Social, Facebook API, Google Friends Connect are just a few words from the Web 2.0 vocabulary that can take us to the future. The vast majority, some 99 per cent, of data in the Internet is currently unstructured, so it is not always easy to use data from other sites. The Web 3.0 – the semantic web – though, is not far away; it will consist of data structured so computers can ‘understand’ it. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web considers the semantic web to be the “right Internet”. Indeed, the new Internet will be much more efficient in using and sharing data according to your needs. Big companies and big social networks can already mine data and discover things about your life and habits you almost surely don’t want just anyone to know. With the semantic Web, the dangers multiply. Let’s get back to KLM. Of course, my scenario is not there yet, but will it take long to integrate KLM’s service with some of the global social networks? I don’t think so. Internet everywhere Just five years ago, the Internet was accessible from one place – a desktop computer on a table. Some WAP sites could be used from your mobile phone and you even heard about Internet television, but these things, due to their inconvenience, were quite far from being mainstream solutions. In spite of that, the ‘three-screen’ concept descends from that time. Telecoms and media companies believed that the same content should be accessible from everywhere all three screens – the computer, the mobile phone and your TV set. This is what is happening today. Fewer people really care about desktop computers – people are buying laptops they can take everywhere. The newer smartphones are becoming real Internet devices – it is often easier to go online than to find a socket to charge your phone. The only thing which is not yet ready in many parts of the world is IPTV, but it is just a matter of time. It is hard to say whether TV will go online or the Internet will finally appear on the TV screens. The Internet TV service Joost is not very successful and other approaches by MSN TV (formerly WebTV), Yahoo TV, and so on. have yet to succeed. Still, TV is becoming more and more interactive and it seems that a tipping point will come in a couple of years. The infrastructure is almost there, and consumers’ habits are slowly but inevitably changing; many people already prefer to watch their favourite TV shows on the Internet. These are great services, but every time you use Web-based services a bit more data about your life and tastes goes into the service provider’s database. However, TV is just a part of the whole picture. Rapid convergence is affecting the way our data is processed. There are dating service systems that will allow you not only to choose your dates from pictures, but also meet them instantly (look left, she is 15 meters away). These advances affect not only dating services – the same sort of system can help you find investors at a business conference or a given service provider during a trade show. It is not science fiction; such applications already exist. Many people have smartphones with GPS chips and Internet connectivity via EDGE or 3G. In some cities, you can find the closest restaurant and see what others think about its service and food. Another service lets you check pictures made nearby – really nearby – for example, in 50 meter radius. The progress is fast; too fast to understand all the consequences it brings. When I walk in London I can use an iPhone application to check pictures of the sights to see; I can also see nearby accommodations, including pictures of the owners. Do they really want me to see those pictures? I doubt it. Quite often, the invasion of privacy issues are hidden. The Internet messenger called Google Talk had a privacy agreement saying that all the content of conversations held by the users belong to Google. It was changed two weeks after the service’s launch when someone checked the terms of agreement and the Internet community started to discuss the situation. However, another Internet messenger, ICQ, belonging to America Online, still has the rights to all the ideas and inventions discussed by its users. It is clear that AOL is just trying to manage the risks of possible civil actions, but still, do you think it is a good idea to discuss your personal or business ideas or affairs using the ICQ messenger? Like most people, I do not always read the online service agreements, however it is better to read the terms before accepting them and giving companies free reign to devise ever-more creative ways to use your personal data. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Different writers describe gloomy anti-utopias; most have to do with futures too scary to contemplate and most predict the death of privacy. True, the world’s outlook is changing, long-accepted standards and morals are swiftly disappearing. Is it true that the layer of glamorous civilization is disappearing as well? Is it true we face a scary future? If we check what is happening on the Internet, the answer is definitely yes. The Internet is a kind of a brave new world for newcomers, without many of the traditional boundaries set by society. It is a world where you can date people without knowing them; you might even doubt their age or gender. On the Internet one can send messages to a prime minister and tell him that he is a dumb communist spy or leave a note ‘on the wall’ saying that they have gone on vacation and will be back in a couple of weeks. However, when the virtual world meets the real world the results are not always what an overly trusting user might expect. That fantastic, just perfect, computer matched date might well be nothing like what you were led to expect; an indiscrete bit of fiction – or an unsavoury truth – posted on your site or blog might lead to an unexpected visit by the police. Finding, upon returning from vacation, that your house has been robbed is a powerful reminder that you have no idea who is actually reading your blog. You might also discover that your erotic pictures are available not only to your Facebook friends, but to your employer as well – and somehow he/she is not convinced that those pictures are forged. In time, both the technology and ethics of privacy will evolve to meet the needs of our virtual lives and of an online society. Until society adjusts to these new technologies, and people get used to the exposure the Internet brings and integrates it into their daily lives, it may be useful to remind people – especially children – that the ethics and morals they choose to live by must be followed carefully everywhere, both online and offline.