Back in March 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee distributed a proposal to his colleagues at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. This was the beginning of the web. “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.”
The founder and web inventor explained in a message for the World Wide Web Foundation the how the web has evolved and what are the threats it poses to humanity in the celebration of its 28th birthday.
In many ways, he says, the web has lived up to these expectations but over the last 12 months, its founder has been worrying about 3 trends that threaten the web’s true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.
They are: the loss of control of personal data, the spread of misinformation and the lack of transparency in political advertising. Though they’ve been around for some time they’ve taken on a greater urgency in the wake of the US presidential election.
Control over our personal data tops the list as we’re not completely aware of what this means. When exchanging our information for free content Berners-Lee says we’re missing a trick. “As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realize if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.”
The widespread of data collection by companies has other impacts such as government surveillance. Whether they do it through collaboration or coercion of companies governments are passing laws that trample on people’s right to privacy. More so, in repressive regimes, for example, 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, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”
Referring to fake news he says most people find information through just a handful of social media sites. “The net result is that these sites 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.” This can also help the rise of bad actors looking for financial or political gain.
Finally, he says political advertising has rapidly become a sophisticated industry as individual adverts are targeted directly at users.
“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.”
Laying out the challenges is one thing but offering solutions is another. Berners-Lee proposes working with web companies “to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people” and including the development of a new technology like personal data pods if needed and exploring alternative revenue models.
He also encourages fighting against governments-overreach in surveillance, algorithmic transparency in social media and search engines and more disclosures around political advertising on the web.
“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.”