What Sir Tim Berners-Lee is willing the internet not to do…
Internet and integrity. The two don’t just share a sonic similarity, not if Sir Tim Berners-Lee has anything to do with it. 28 years ago the computer scientist conceived of the world wide web, submitting it to CERN for approval. To mark the internet’s 28th’s birthday, Berners-Lee has done what any good father would and got it the best present of all: an open letter identifying three pressing issues he believes are threatening its integrity.
Intrinsic to this open letter is a rallying cry in which the inventor invokes us to “tackle” said issues “in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity”. The issues at hand can be distilled into the following list: loss of control of personal data, the spreading of misinformation (read: #fakenews) and opaque political advertising.
First up, personal data. People surrender their data too freely online, posits Berners-Lee. It’s understandable: the lure of free content is a powerful one, whilst lengthy terms and conditions in minute grey font aren’t exactly begging to be read. Personal data is a powerful individual tool, and, he argues “we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control of this data, and chose when and with whom to share it”. Caveats we’d rather not disclose, meanwhile, aren’t for us to pick and choose; companies just hoover up the data they want, regardless of personal preference. Proffering personal data online means governments also have an easy means of surveillance, encroaching on people’s right to privacy and freedom of speech. Meaning that far from being an arena of free-flowing ideas and exploration, the uninhibited sharing of personal data can make the internet a constricting place to engage.
Berners-Lee’s second qualm was with the rampant spreading of misinformation. This, he attributed largely to titanic social media sites and search engines (no prizes for guessing who he was alluding to). The algorithms these sites use are governed by terms such as ‘cost per click’ and ‘clickbait’. In turn, this means that misinformation – colloquially known as ‘fake news’ – spreads unchecked, leading to skewed political outcomes and unwarranted financial gain.
The third and final issue outlined was the haze surrounding online political advertising. Most people, Berners-Lee argued, got their news sources from relatively few platforms. These platforms wield vast amounts of personal data, which can be sold on to political parties who can target voters with hand-crafted adverts. The computer scientist goes on to illustrate this with a case study from the 2016 US election, in which nearly 50,000 variants of ads were being aired on Facebook every day. Voters can be deliberately mislead, redirected to fake news sites, or incentivised not to vote at all. It was, he lamented, “a near-impossible situation to monitor”. This coming from the man who invented the web…
The answers are broad – and some are nascent – but they’re there. Berners-Lee heralds a five-year plan, characterised by algorithmic transparency “to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made”, new technology to reign in personal data exposure (curiously named “data pods”) and the checking of government surveillance laws online, “through the courts if necessary”. For his part – although he can hardly be accused of an inadequate contribution – Berners-Lee vowed to research problems in further detail, formulate policy solutions and galvanise the march towards “a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all”. Tim Berners-Lee is that rare specimen who, for want of less mundane analogy, does the cooking AND washing up; he created the rich palette of the world wide web and now he’s scouring the pans lest they fester and congeal. A veritable superhero for the modern age.