‘Why I believe the web I invented is failing’

Wide world: 51% of the global population now has access to the internet. © Getty
by Tim Berners-Lee

The inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, which campaigns for free and fair access to the internet. Tim Berners-Lee was knighted in 2004, and starred in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

Yesterday, the World Wide Web celebrated its 29th birthday. Its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, has dedicated his life to making sure it is accessible to all. But now he says it is in trouble…

Yesterday, the World Wide Web turned 29. This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online. When I share this exciting news with people, I tend to get one of two concerned reactions:

1/ How do we get the other half of the world connected?

2/ Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?

As the late internet activist, John Perry Barlow, once said: ‘A good way to invent the future is to predict it.’

The threats to the web today are real and many — from misinformation and questionable political advertising to a loss of control over our personal data.

But I remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.

That vision is only possible if we get everyone online, and make sure the web works for people. Here’s where we must focus our efforts:

The divide between people who have internet access and those who do not is deepening existing inequalities — inequalities that pose a serious global threat.

In 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food. But until we make internet access affordable for all, billions will continue to be denied this basic right.

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

We’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers. Companies are making efforts to fix them. The responsibility — and sometimes burden — of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good.

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be more creative.

While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems that have been created by people — and can be fixed by people.

I want to challenge us all to have greater ambitions for the web. I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions.

As the late internet activist, John Perry Barlow, once said: “A good way to invent the future is to predict it.” It may sound impossible to achieve after the setbacks of the last two years, but I want us to imagine that future and build it.

Let’s work together to make it possible.

This is an extract from an open letter published by the World Wide Web Foundation. You can find the full version under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Is the World Wide Web failing?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have been tasked with improving the World Wide Web for everyone. Think about the problems described in this article, plus any problems you have encountered in your own life. Then write down five suggestions that you would make. These could be aimed at governments, social media companies or ordinary users.

Word Watch

29
The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee on March 12, 1989, while he was working at CERN in Switzerland. At the time, his boss called the idea “vague but exciting”.
Inequalities
According to Berners-Lee: “You’re more likely to be offline if you are female, poor, live in a rural area or a low-income country, or some combination of the above.”
Affordable
The United Nations recently set a target of 1GB of mobile data for less than 2% of average monthly income. In some countries, however, the cost of 1GB of mobile broadband remains over 20% of average monthly income.
Dominant platforms
Companies owned by Google and Facebook (including YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram) account for around 70% of the internet’s traffic.
Interfere
Most famously, Russia has been accused of using social media to interfere with the US election in 2016.
Steal
According to Cifas, there are around 500 cases of identity fraud per day in the UK. The overwhelming majority happen online.
Web Foundation
The World Wide Web Foundation is an independent organisation founded by Tim Berners-Lee in 2009.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.