HAPPY BIRTHDAY

The inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, outlines its three biggest threats

The World Wide Web turned 28 today. But rather than celebrate, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, used the occasion to lay out what he sees as its greatest challenges.

Specifically, Berners-Lee points to three threats: the loss of control of personal data, the spread of misinformation, and lack of transparency in political advertising. He describes them as “three new trends” though they’ve each been around in some form for some time. Clearly, though, they’ve taken on a greater urgency for Berners-Lee and many others in the wake of the US presidential election that was an exhausting swirl of fake news, and ended in a result few saw coming.

The loss of control of personal data would probably top the list of any worries over the web going back at least a decade. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the rest of the online advertising and e-commerce ecosystem make their money by tracking users across the web, and that type of information has long been bought and sold by third parties. But the concern is less over those Amazon ads that follow us everywhere, and more about that information being seized by political forces. Berners-Lee writes:

“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.”

In addressing the spread of misinformation, he points to how social media sites and search engines are financially incentivized to show us links we’ll click, which they can easily do based on the vast data they have on our likes and dislikes. This leads to the easy spread of sensationalized “fake news” and the rise of bad actors looking for financial or political gain.

That the power of the web could be manipulated to sway an election has become an existential crisis for its dominant players. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has scoffed at the idea that fake news spread on his site influenced the election, then later said the company takes misinformation very seriously. Of course, for those willing to spend dollars on custom ads, yes, Facebook says it can turn an election. It’s this point that worries Berners-Lee: “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”

Laying out the challenges is one thing, and offering plausible solutions another. There, even the inventor of the web can only offer broad strokes. He proposes working with web companies to put “a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments.” He also advocates for fighting against government-overreach in surveillance; pushing internet gatekeepers like Google and Facebook to tackle misinformation (though avoid a situation where they dictate what is “true”); algorithmic transparency so we understand why we see the information we see; and more disclosures around political advertising on the web.

This, of course, requires that a “we” demand and negotiate for these things, and it’s unclear whether the social will currently exists to join together in such a way. But at least we have a platform—developed nearly three decades ago on the promise of sharing information, offering opportunities, and collaboration—to do it if we choose.

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