As Internet Turns 28, Inventor Issues Warning

Tim Berners-Lee says 3 things must change
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 13, 2017 5:37 AM CDT
Web Inventor Says 3 Things Must Be Changed
British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee speaks during at the World Web Forum in Zurich earlier this year.   (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)

When Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for a "World Wide Web" to help the European Organization for Nuclear Research manage its data, he didn't realize he was creating a future that would feature fake news and data-stealing dildos. The British computer scientist marked the 28th anniversary of his invention with a letter at the World Wide Web Foundation listing three problems that need to be dealt with "for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity."

  1. Control of personal data. Berners-Lee believes users are being ill-served by the current business model of "free content in exchange for personal data," which people agree to when accepting "long and confusing terms and conditions documents." He says people would be better off having control of their own data and choosing when to share it. He also warns that governments watching people online are passing repressive laws—and the "chilling effect on free speech" is stifling dissent even in democratic countries.

  1. Misinformation. Berners-Lee warns that most people now get information through a small number of search engines and social media sites, which use algorithms and the personal data they have harvested to decide what to show people. "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," he writes.
  2. Political advertising. Algorithms and harvested data distort things in political advertising as well, making it possible for an estimated 50,000 different variations of ads to be shown in a single day of last year's US presidential race, Berners-Lee says. "Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?" he asks.
There are no simple answers to these complex problems, Berners-Lee writes, but paths to progress include putting data control back in the hands of individuals, fighting against surveillance laws, and working with companies like Facebook and Google to fight misinformation. "I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today," he writes, "and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want—for everyone." Click for the full letter. (More Tim Berners-Lee stories.)

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