The “father of the Web” says we need laws to curb “state-sponsored” internet crackdown

Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee
Image: REUTERS/Simon Dawson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The internet turns 30 today, underscoring how in its nascent existence, it has transformed everything in our daily lives. This moment also arrives at a crucial time, just months after the International Telecommunication Union announced that half of the world’s population was now connected to the world wide web.

Yet given how much the web has changed the world, newer challenges have also surfaced threatening its democratic and equalizing nature. The web’s founder, Tim Berners-Lee, is warning policymakers and users about some of these negative consequences and malicious acts, which he says are creating a platform that doesn’t foster equality, opportunity, and creativity.

In an open letter published by the Web Foundation, the British scientist said digital harassment, along with an “outraged and polarized” online discourse, besides “state-sponsored hacking and attacks” were undermining the efficacy of the internet. While the web had emboldened people across the world politically, economically, and socially, Berners-Lee wrote that it also created a platform “for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”

On Mar. 12, 1989, Berners-Lee had written a proposal for a new information management system that linked documents held in multiple computers at the European Council for Nuclear Research. As part of the three-decade celebration, Berners-Lee will be visiting Lagos tomorrow (Mar. 13).

The 1989 internet proposal
Image: Web Foundation

For many Africans, the ominous warning narrated in the letter is already here given how much states are undermining the internet’s growing pace. Even though Africa recorded the highest growth in internet use globally, Africans nations block access more than anywhere else. In 2019 alone, Sudan, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Algeria all shut down the internet, while Chadians have not had social media for almost a year now. A levy on social media use in Uganda last year has also forced millions of people to go offline.

Social media bots have been listed as undermining the credibility of elections, while fake news is increasingly being spread on “dark social” sites like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger where information shared can’t be seen or quantified. Data mining companies like Cambridge Analytica, which Facebook suspended for illegally harvesting data from 80 million profiles, have also been accused of compromising civic institutions around Africa including in Kenya and Nigeria.

To change this, Berners-Lee writes there’s a need for “elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web.” The world, he said, shouldn’t despair from trying to make the internet a safer and more productive sphere.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox