The man credited with inventing the World Wide Web some 28 years ago, says it faces three major threats – and we should all be worried.
In an open letter to the world, Tim Berners Lee, has said we are all losing control of our personal data, that the spread of fake news is concerning, and the lack of regulation around political advertising needs to be fixed. Tim Berners-Lee states: “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity.”
Personal data we shouldn’t have to give up when we use the Web
Berners-Lee is first of all concerned about how much personal data people surrender when they sign up to terms and conditions on websites and install apps. “As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.” The risks of this practice increase in countries that have authoritarian regimes, or where hidden communication between companies and governments can put citizens’ lives at risk.
The growth of fake news
Secondly, Berners-Lee wrote about his fears for the continued growth and proliferation of misinformation online. Social networks “show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire…”And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”
Political advertising in the age of the internet
Finally, the internet’s founder argues concisely that sophisticated demographic-based modern advertising puts democracy in peril, pointing to previous political campaigns that release and propagate opinions and political viewpoints based on unqualified opinions; driving voters to fake news sites, for instance, or worse, attempting to disenfranchise voters by keeping them away from the polls. “Using targeted advertising that allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”
Who’s to blame?
The common theme that runs through all the above trends reflects on the influence and power of the tech companies that largely run the world-wide web, like Google and Facebook. Essentially, without regulation or strict rules Berners-Lee argues that running unchecked as they are currently, they are having a corrosive effect on democracy.
“I may have invented the web,” Berners-Lee concludes, “but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community… It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”
Well there you go. If you can’t trust the man who founded the web, and who then gave it the world free of charge, who can you trust? After all, as he tweeted a few years back at the London Olympics: “This is for everyone.” And if it is for everyone, then everyone needs to stand up for it.