Dire warning from internet visionary

By Nick Whigham

Tim Berners-Lee in his Massachusetts Institute of Technology office, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his original web server. Photo / News.com.au
Tim Berners-Lee in his Massachusetts Institute of Technology office, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his original web server. Photo / News.com.au

Nearly three decades after the fact, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web says we need to make some drastic changes in order to save it.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, 61, is now the director of the World Wide Web Consortium which oversees its continued development and he is worried about the current state of the internet.

In an open letter on the 28th birthday of his creation, he warned that the Web has become a surveillance tool, used for a system of "unethical" political advertising and the harvesting of data.

He also lamented the rise of fake news and how the current social media age of the internet has distorted discourse and skewed our access to news and information.

"We've lost control of our personal data," Sir Berners-Lee wrote.

While a majority of websites and online services are free, what some users might not understand is that they're actually paying by agreeing to hand over their personal information and data which is collected, monitored and sold off.

"We're missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data," he said.
It has also allowed for unprecedented levels of government surveillance.

"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," he warned.

"Even in countries where we believe governments have citizens' best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics."

The computer scientist who achieved the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the internet in 1989 also took aim at fake news and the increasingly sophisticated industry of online political advertising.

"The increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users," he wrote.

"Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?"

The problem, he wrote, is compounded by how many people use the web to get their news as most people find their news through a "handful" of social media sites and search engines, which are paid whenever someone clicks a link.

"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 added. "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."

The "internet blind spot" in political campaigning must be closed while alternative revenue streams must be explored so data is not sold so indiscriminately, he said.
He plans for the Web Foundation, which he founded in 2009, to work on the issues in a five-year strategy.

- news.com.au

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