Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web (the Web) Foundation on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the invention of the web, has proffered solutions to what he identified as the three biggest threats to the web.
He said stakeholders should “work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people,” including the development of new technology like personal ‘data pods’ and the exploration of alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments.
He also suggested pushing back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers including Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem but he will not support the creation of any central bodies that decide what is true or false.
He added that the web needs 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 while also calling for the closure of the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.
He also urged people to combat government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the legal means if necessary.
The three big complex threats to the web that he identified include loss of control of our personal data; ease of misinformation spreading on the web and non-transparent political advertising online as three new trends, which he says must be tackled “in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity”.
Saying the challenges needed to be addressed quickly, Sir Berners-Lee noted that the web had managed to live up to its vision due to the recurring battles to keep it open.
On the issue of loss of control of personal data, the web inventor said this comes as bait as many websites offer free content in exchange for personal data.
He said many people are tricked into allowing their information to be collected by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions in exchange for free services.
He noted that: “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 such data and chose when and with whom to share it.”
Sir Berners-Lee noted with concern that the result is that: “This widespread data collection by companies has made governments to increasingly watch our every move online and to pass extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.”
He pointed out that in repressive regimes this can cause some harm including the arrest or murder of bloggers and monitoring of political opponents.
He added that governments, even of established democracy, continually watching the online activities of citizens “… creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”
Elaborating on the ease of spreading false information, the Web Foundation founder noted that most people now find news and information on the web from just a handful of social media sites and search engines which make money when people click on the links they provide people.
He said the sites choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they constantly harvest with the net result that they give us content they think we will click on. This way, he noted, “misinformation or ‘fake news’ which is surprising, shocking or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.”
Sir Berners-Lee added that “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.”
He also disclosed that through rapid sophistication of political advertising online as well as the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users.
Political adverts in the US and around the world are suspected to be used in unethical ways to point voters to fake news sites to achieve a premeditated outcome for instance, to keep some voters away from the polls. He noted that: “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,” which he questions.
Urging support for the work of the Web Foundation, Sir Berners-Lee said the Web Foundation team will be working on these issues as part of its new five year strategy through researching the problems in more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all.