‘Help me save the web’ says its inventor

Tim Berners-Lee: “I may have invented the web, but you have helped to create what it is today.”

Exactly 28 years and one day ago, Tim Berners-Lee proposed creating a world wide web. He hoped it would lead to a more equal world for all — but now he fears the opposite is happening. Why?

It has been 28 years since Tim Berners-Lee proposed the creation of a free online space, where anyone with the right technology could access information. Of course, his dream came true. In the decades since, the world wide web has revolutionised society.

But yesterday its inventor published a warning in a leading newspaper: the web is in crisis. Three trends particularly worried him.

Firstly, he said, websites are collecting huge amounts of personal data from users. This means that governments can watch “our every move” online through surveillance laws. That has a “chilling effect on free speech”.

Secondly, that same data can be used by platforms like Google and Facebook to fuel algorithms which help fake news to spread “like wildfire”.

Finally, he warned that political adverts online are being used in “unethical ways” — such as to keep voters away from polls. “Is that democratic?” he asked.

When he first envisioned the web in 1989, he pictured a space that was free and egalitarian, “a tool that serves all of humanity”. It would allow “everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”

In many ways, that is what we have. But the dominance of a small handful of websites could make the problems he worries about worse.

In 2015, five companies shared 65% of the money from online advertising. Around 40% of web traffic goes through Google. And allowing anyone to post information means that falsehoods can spread on these sites as quickly as truth.

“It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want,” Berners-Lee said yesterday. His solutions include putting data control in the hands of ordinary people, challenging surveillance laws, and encouraging social networks to fight fake news.

Can the web live up to its founding ideals?

Web of lies

Yes, say some. When Berners-Lee appeared on stage at the London 2012 Olympics, he tweeted a promise that lit up the stadium: “This is for everyone.” It must be kept that way. The web should not be controlled by just a few companies in Silicon Valley, and it certainly should not be used to spy on people, suppress free speech or damage democracy. Who better to remind us of that than its creator?

This is too idealistic, argue others. For a long time, WWW might as well have stood for “wild wild west”. It was a chaotic world where anyone could say anything. It was exciting, but dangerous. Surveillance laws help to keep an eye on its darker side. And while Google and Facebook are not perfect, they give people what they actually want: order, simplicity, and connections with others. It is hardly a crisis.

You Decide

  1. Is the world wide web in crisis?
  2. Do you agree with Tim Berners-Lee’s proposed solutions?

Activities

  1. You have been tasked with writing five “common principles” that all internet users must follow. What would they be? Explain your decisions to the class.
  2. The year is 2089. Write a history explaining 100 years of the world wide web — starting with the facts up to 2017, and ending with what you think will happen next.

Some People Say...

“The world can be seen as only connections, nothing else.”

Tim Berners-Lee

What do you think?

Q & A

Three billion people use the internet. Why should I worry about one man’s opinion?
Because he created it. And while that does not mean that he should run it, it does mean that he is worth listening to. But in the end, the web works like any other “place” where people gather: everybody helps to shape what is found there. In that way, the most important opinion about what happens on the web belongs to you.
What can I do to change it?
It depends on your goals. If you worry about surveillance, make sure you have strict privacy settings and let politicians know how you feel about the laws. If you worry about free speech, try getting involved in online conversations and reading a wide range of viewpoints. If you worry about data, look for a search engine that does not record your history.

Word Watch

Proposed
Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The web was completed in 1990 and opened to the public in 1991.
World wide web
Not the same thing as the internet. The internet is the network connecting computers, the web is just one way of using it.
Surveillance laws
For example, last year Britain passed laws allowing its intelligence agencies to store the web history of every citizen for up to a year.
Free speech
In 2016, research published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly suggested that awareness of government surveillance was causing people to unknowingly censor themselves.
Algorithms
Both Facebook and Google use your behaviour online to predict which links you most want to see — either on your timeline or in your browser search.
Keep voters away
Berners-Lee includes a link to a Bloomberg article on Donald Trump’s online strategy. This included adverts tailored to different types of Clinton voters, trying to turn them against her.
Five companies
Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter, according to Pew Research Center.

Subjects