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The System: Who owns the internet, and how it owns us by James Ball

27 November 2020

Peter Crumpler reads an investigation into the powerful online

IT IS a good rule of thumb to get suspicious when people tell you something is so complicated that you should not worry about it.

That sentence sums up the thinking behind this fascinating people-focused examination of “who owns the internet, and how it owns us”, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist James Ball.

The former Washington Post and Guardian reporter seeks to unwrap the complexities by profiling some of the key people involved. He interviews computer scientists who were there in the earliest days, the people who run the cable networks, the billionaire investors, and the regulators fighting a losing battle to control the “Big Tech” companies.

It is Ball’s meeting with Brian O’Kelley — one of the pioneers of developing internet advertising — which is perhaps the most chilling. Despite making millions of dollars selling online ads, O’Kelley reveals: “I use an ad blocker — and I’m not embarrassed about that.”

Ball points out that clicking “Yes” to “cookies” on a website means that targeted ads can be offered to you on that site — and also allows it and the advertising networks to follow you around the internet. And we may do this dozens of times every day.

How our data is used, the concentration of power among a few “Big Tech” companies in the United States, the use of the internet by intelligence agencies, and the impact of the web on independent media coverage are just some of the challenges of the web’s rapid expansion addressed in this engaging overview.

Ball ends on an optimistic note. We can make the internet work for us, he says, but only if we are not daunted by the size of the task, and break it down into getting small things done. He concludes: “It’s the next step of the technological revolution, and it’s in our hands.”

The Revd Peter Crumpler is a Self-Supporting Minister in St Albans diocese, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.


The System: Who owns the internet, and how it owns us
James Ball
Bloomsbury Publishing £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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