Tim Berners-Lee: Sick web needs saving from companies and governments

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist who hatched the idea of the world wide web, has slammed the ad-sponsored web we know today, citing malware, fake news, and divisive discourse as the three major sources of “dysfunction” afflicting the web. 

Berners-Lee dreamed up a global hypertext information management ‘mesh’ in 1990 and also created the world’s first internet browser, the WorldWideWeb browser, launched 30 years ago. The CERN browser gave rise to Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. 

The web pioneer posted an open letter today, the 30th anniversary of the web, that asks the world to consider what will happen to the web in the next 30 years if steps aren't taken to save it from its worst elements. 

While the web has created opportunities for good, Berners-Lee said it also “created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”

The letter doesn't name Google and Facebook, but touches on issues that the two companies are uniquely positioned to fix, either voluntarily by way of regulations that would force them to take some action. 

"Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open," he wrote.  

The three key sources of dysfunction Berners-Lee highlights include “state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment”; “ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation”; and the “outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse”.

“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good," wrote Berners-Lee. 

"But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Berners-Lee believes laws can minimize major hacking attacks but says they will not be sufficient to eradicate the threats. 

He doesn’t offer an answer to the ad-sponsored state of the web but notes that the world needs to “redesign systems in a way that change incentives”. 

“And the final category calls for research to understand existing systems and model possible new ones or tweak those we already have.”

Public and private sector organizations need to pull their weight to resolve the web's woes. 

"We need open web champions within government — civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web," Berners-Lee wrote. 

"Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind."


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