Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, but he was an early and enthusiastic proponent. As Senator he introduced a bill that funded development of the internet\u2019s underlying technology. As Vice President he offered soaring rhetoric about an \u201cinformation superhighway \u2026 linking all human knowledge.\u201d\nWhen I first heard those words I was thrilled. Universal access to almost unlimited information would revolutionize education. Also, as an unreformed idealist, I had always felt it was a major flaw of modern democracy that no individual could easily access the full range of hard data about our society and government, from welfare programs to tax policy to defense spending.\nHaving those facts one click away would change everything. People would make much more informed voting decisions. It would be a better world.\nA different reality\nGo ahead and laugh. But keep in mind that in 1994 TV news was only halfway through morphing into an entertainment medium. Fox News didn\u2019t exist. Spam email was just beginning to be a problem. The idea that the internet could devolve into a swamp of disinformation never really occurred to me.\nInstead I figured the internet would be like any other medium only better: You would have reputable and disreputable sources, and it would be easy to tell them apart. People would be able to surf and triangulate and easily distinguish fact from fiction. Better yet, I was sure that as the vaults of government and academic data opened, new opportunities to explore and visualize that wealth of information would proliferate.\nYet we now know that people have a terrible time distinguishing internet fact from fake news.\u00a0And while there have been many laudable efforts to aggregate public data and provide interactive visualizations on the open internet, from President Obama\u2019s Data.gov to Hans Rosling\u2019s Gapminder to MIT Media Lab\u2019s Data USA, their audiences, usability, and sustainability have been limited. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource, but it's an encyclopedia, not a tool for visualizing the numeric data that describes the world.\nI also had no idea that \u201creality shopping\u201d would become so seductive. Who knew the internet would become the ultimate big-box store for \u201cfacts\u201d as products, where people would choose whatever reinforced their preconceptions? Or that one person\u2019s fake news would become another\u2019s canonical fact?\nNor could I have predicted how economically devastating the transition from print to web and web to mobile would be for real journalism. Relentless declines in advertising revenue have made it hard to sustain reputable journalists who check facts and know their beats, particularly at local news outlets. The pressure to turn content into clickbait has been felt by almost every journalist who has stuck it out.\nAdvertising and power\nWell, you can\u2019t blame tech, right? After all, the business of tech is tech, not truth.\nWrong. Yes, you can hold tech responsible\u2014Google and Facebook in particular. Together they eat over half of U.S. digital advertising dollars. Major U.S. journalistic operations such as the New York Times or Washington Post don't even show up on the radar.\nGoogle and Facebook didn\u2019t set out to decimate advertising-supported content, but they\u2019re doing a pretty good job of it. The U.K. media think tank ResPublica has even suggested imposing a levy on the revenues of major online search and social networking services to fund journalism.\nThe unintended consequences of internet dominance go further, as Facebook\u2019s role in disseminating fake news demonstrates. Facebook\u2019s walled garden makes it hard to poke through and check sources on the open internet, so sensationalized junk swirls around its ecosystem unimpeded, boosting ad impressions and revenue.\nRestore the promise\nOne crucial area is the ability to visualize and interact with real data about the world \u2013 the environment, the economy, health care, immigration, housing \u2013 all the key domains that define our global society. Almost all of that information is open data, but widely distributed and often difficult to find, let alone visualize.\nWhether or not a large percentage of ordinary citizens or even policymakers use it, I see this capability as fundamental. Lack of agreement on basic factual information has helped lead to our current impasse, with each tribe subscribing to its own \u201cfacts.\u201d\nAt one point, Google seemed headed in the right direction. Google launched its Public Data Explorer\u00a0in 2010 using the Trendalyzer software it licensed from the Gapminder Foundation in 2007, even hiring the software\u2019s creator in the process. But the project has since been deprecated.\nGoogle also leads the world in artificial intelligence. With concerted effort, how long would it take to, say, automate the International Fact-Checking Network\u2019s code of principles to evaluate any \u201cfact\u201d? Would it be insanely difficult? Sure. But this is a company building self-driving cars. With great power comes great responsibility. At the least, I have no doubt that a consortium of the leading internet giants could pull together and accomplish it.\nOn the brink\nThe virtual world of the internet is hell-bent on distorting the real world, undermining rather than augmenting reality. Made-up nonsense enjoys equal status with verifiable fact, with real-world consequences. We are becoming what Hannah Arendt once called \u201cthe ideal subjects of totalitarian rule \u2026 people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.\u201d\nThe vulnerability to bad actors who wish to cultivate that credulity now verges on outweighing the internet\u2019s astounding benefits. We\u2019re on the cusp of multiplying that danger as we enter the era of virtual reality, whose leading proponent Mark Zuckerberg promises will be irresistibly immersive.\nWe face an existential information crisis. The solution is to rediscover the original promise of the internet and commit to its fulfillment. These cannot be half measures that are toyed with and abandoned. Usable, consistent data visualization and factual verification features are not options\u2014they\u2019re essentials that were skipped in the rush to monetize. Only the internet giants have the wherewithal to pay down that debt.