Tim Berners-Lee: It is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone

 

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.

Worse still:

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.

He concludes:

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.

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4 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 20th Mar '17 - 3:46pm

    I hate to be the one to ask this, but isn’t there a more disturbing possibility here. That the web we have pretty much is the one we want?

    Maybe I’m the disappointed dreamer. I was at University in the early 1990s and I truly believed that the internet would be an unfettered exercise in dumbing up. 25 years on let’s just say I’m rather feeling as if I was had.

    But what really is the internet – the best delivery system for prurient content the world will ever know? Something that lets us all happily retreat into our bubbles, pretending to ourselves that tapping away on a keyboard is some form of civic participation? Something that destroys jobs? Something that is a megaphone for anyone and anything? Don’t we just love all these things on some level, if not openly so?

    The internet we have might to some extent have been foisted on us by interests, sure, but I don’t think that’s close to the full story. The web we want is probably not far off the one we’ve got. Not a nice thought for those of us who thought this was going to lead us to a sunny, high information future.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Mar '17 - 8:17pm

    @ljp
    I think it is not the web we want, but the web that we are prepared to pay for or, more accurately, not pay for. There is a saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”. It is only because people think that they are getting something for nothing, that they are ready to release their personal data. How else could Facebook grow into such a gigantic business except by finding a way to monetise its users’ data.

    Google is also very good at this. Whilst its USP is its search engine, it has leveraged this by adding imagery (Google Maps, Google Streetview) and linking these to its advertising of businesses. Panoramio was originally a third-party scene-sharing web site, bought by Google. integrated with Google Earth and now closed, with the pictures transferred to Google+ where the emphasis is again on linking them to business advertising.

    Microsoft paid $26 bn for LinkedIn (also free to the user at the Basic level). Do we really believe that they consider that a professional networking system is worth this much, or do they see it as an opportunity to sell Microsoft products to a group of mainly professional people.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Mar '17 - 9:12am

    Laurence Cox – I think that is certainly a part of it. I guess I go back to my early 1990s self, believing that the internet would be a technology that liberated, informed and put power in people’s hands. The internet, of course, has the SCOPE to do all that. But nowadays that’s basically a by-product.

    What exactly is liberating about the glut of partisan ‘news’ websites and the like? This is what ‘we’ wanted isn’t it? If not then how on earth have we ended up with this web? How has the public at large been empowered by having their every activity monetised?

    It may very well be that the internet we have is as much a symptom of the problems in our society as the cause. But as I said earlier the internet optimists really are kidding themselves. We pretty much have the web we want.

  • Simon Banks 22nd Mar '17 - 8:14am

    An issue touched on in this summary is that while the web very effectively links people across the globe with similar interests or concerns, unlike traditional meeting-places such as the pub, the dance, the market or even the church or temple, the selective news feed plus the ease of unfriending on social media mean we tend to have relatively little contact with people who don’t share our views – and what contact there is, is often very confrontational and most unlikely to change minds. Thus we may be pulled apart into non-communicating camps. This has already happened with the increasingly sharp US political divide based on social rather than economic issues – questions of attitude rather than condition.

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