I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for the last week, but somehow Conference got in the way.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an important article in The Guardian about a week ago, which should be taken seriously by anyone involved in politics who a) cares about democracy and b) understands the significance of online campaigning – which I guess means most LDV readers.
As the inventor of the worldwide web, Berners-Lee has ardently campaigned for web universality and net neutrality, and he has put structures in place to try to ensure its independence from political and commercial interference. I wrote something about his concerns in 2010 when he marked the 20th anniversary of his invention with a warning article in Scientific American.
He repeats some of those worries in his latest article, demonstrating that the threats have not gone away, and indeed have been joined by new ones.
His first concern is that we have lost control of our personal data. We willingly offer our personal data to websites in exchange for online content, though usually we won’t have read the T&Cs and may be unaware of how that data can be used and passed around. But what we don’t realise is just how powerful we could be if we retained control of our own data and decided who to share it with and when.
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.
Note that the link is to the UK Snoopers Charter, not to legislation in some repressive regime.
Secondly, we’ve all been talking about fake news, and Berners-Lee elaborates by saying that it is too easy for misinformation to spread:
Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. 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. And 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.
Finally he gets to the key political point. He believes that political advertising online needs transparency and understanding:
Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data mean that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And 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. Is that democratic?
So what are the solutions? The Web Foundation, which he founded, has a 5 year strategy to work on these problems, and he gives a hint in the article about its priorities.
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.
* Mary Reid is the Monday Editor on Lib Dem Voice.