World wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee has spoken out about fake news, political advertising and the misuse of personal data.
On March 12th 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, established a place for himself in the history books by creating the World Wide Web.
At the time he worked for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), writing a paper titled “Information Management — A Proposal.” His research led to the development of the first Web browser and, finally, the World Wide Web. Today, Berners-Lee is a professor at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Southhampton in England.
In an open letter to mark the web’s 28th anniversary, he outlined issues he says need to be solved for it to “fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.”
Berners-Lee says it is too easy for misinformation to propagate, because most people get their news from a small set of social media sites and search engines that make money from people clicking on links. These sites’ algorithms often prioritise content based on what people are likely to engage with, which means fake news can “spread like wildfire”.
He also questions the ethics of online political advertising. Political campaigns can use vast quantities of personal data in order to target advertisements to viewers. As many as 50,000 variations of adverts were displayed on Facebook each day in the 2016 US election, he says. “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”
And in general the collection of personal data is going too far, he says. Many websites rely on users giving up data in exchange for free content. While people may agree with this exchange, they are losing control over their information. Web users often agree to lengthy terms and conditions with no way of telling companies which information they would rather not share – it’s “all or nothing”.
Governments are also increasingly tracking online behaviour. This can affect the way people use the web everywhere. “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,” he says.
Berners-Lee says the Web Foundation, which he founded, plans to work on these issues. He suggests using “data pods” that could help people regain control over their data by storing it away from applications and only temporarily granting access, and proposes subscriptions and micropayments as alternative ways for companies to generate income. He supports of efforts by Facebook and Google to combat fake news and calls for regulation of online political campaigning.
“We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made,” he says.