Creator of the internet Tim Berners-Lee says past year has him worried about the web

The man who brought us the internet now worries that his baby has grown up into a bit of a monster.

The web has turned against us on three fronts: privacy, news and politics, Tim Berners-Lee wrote in a new op-ed.

“Through collaboration with – or coercion of – (tech) companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy,” Berners-Lee said in a March 11 piece in The Guardian.

“Misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.

“Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”

March 11 marked the 28th anniversary of the day Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for the world wide web, he noted.

“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,” he wrote. “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 fulfill its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity.”

On privacy, the internet pioneer said, “We’ve lost control of our personal data.” While in repressive countries the access to citizens’ data by authorities can lead to killing of bloggers and monitoring of political opponents, in nations where “governments have citizens’ best interests at heart” official oversight of people’s digital lives “creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion,” he wrote.

On fake news, Berners-Lee pointed to algorithms that learn from users’ personal data, which allows social media sites and search engines to cough up results “they think we’ll click on,” he wrote. That means misinformation can spread, and that bad actors can use it, he wrote.

“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.”

The web’s creator also went after 21st-century political advertising.

“The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data mean that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users,” he wrote.

“One source suggests that in the 2016 U.S. election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor.

“And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls.”

So, father of the internet, how can we make it better?

Berners-Lee suggested that perhaps we should revisit the “you-give-us-a-free-online-service-and-we-get-your-data” financial model. Possible are “alternative revenue models” including subscriptions and micro-payments, he suggested.

Citizens and groups must battle back against over-reaching surveillance laws, in the courts if required, he wrote.

Google, Facebook and other “gatekeepers” need to be pushed to continue fighting fake news, but there should be no “central bodies” trying to separate fact from fiction, he wrote.

Possibly a set of common principles for the web is needed, but certainly and urgently, Berners-Lee wrote, we need more transparency into political advertising in the digital age.


Photo: Tim Berners-Lee in 1999. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Makikiguy

    I thought Al Gore was the father of the internet. Maybe he was the mother of the internet??