Worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's biggest concerns: privacy, fake news and political ads


It was 28 years ago that Tim-Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for the worldwide web. What he envisioned as an open platform that would break down global barriers has become a wild beast with endless problems. Talking on the anniversary of his invention, Berners-Lee has spoken about his concerns for the web.

He has three problems in his crosshairs, and he says the trio of issues is something "we must tackle in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity." But he does not come armed with solutions; it's at least partly down to us to sort things out.

As per the headline, Berners-Lee highlights privacy, fake news and political advertising as his major bugbears. Fake news has been an issue with the likes of Facebook for some time, but it has been brought into the public eye in particular by President Trump constantly harping on about it. Berners-Lee points out that "most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines." He goes on to say that, driven by money, sites are likely to show visitors content they are more likely to click on, regardless of whether it is true or not.

This is clearly of no benefit to visitors, and it's not just the sites that are reaping the financial benefits. Berners-Lee says 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."

This is something that is closely related to the issue he takes with political advertising online:

Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. 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. One source suggests that in the 2016 US 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. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?

His third problem also has a close link to social networking sites, but there are plenty of other sites that can be tarred with the same brush -- the fact that we have lost control of our personal data. He points to long and confusing terms and conditions that mean many people are unaware of the sacrifices they're making in simply using particular online services. But this is not just a matter of letting sites know about our personal preferences. Berners-Lee points out that the side-effects can be rather more worrying:

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with -- or coercion of -- companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it's easy to see the harm that can be caused -- bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens' best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far. It 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.

None of these problems can be solved overnight. Berners-Lee recognizes that the issues are complex, and that a coordinated effort is going to be needed to keep them in check. He has a number of suggestions about how to proceed, but in particular he highlights the need for transparency:

We must fight against government overreach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is "true" or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the "internet blind spot" in the regulation of political campaigning.

He concludes by saying that while he may have invented the web, it is its users that have made it what it is, and it's down to the users to knock it back into shape. "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."

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