Inventor and guardian of the Web
The Web is facing a number of fundamental issues that undermine its potential as a neutral platform for information, learning and understanding, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, opening keynote speaker at The Future of Finance Summit 2018 from 23rd to 25th May in Beijing China, offers some solutions to safeguard it.
- Tim Berners-Lee has described that the current state of the Web where personal data has become too easy to access and share, and misinformation has become rampant
- He is concerned that the Web is beginning to lose its role as a neutral medium for information, learning and understanding as it has become too easy for misinformation to spread
- He also cited the targeted delivery of paid or sponsored political messages that may be disguised as news and information as having insidious ramifications on democracy
English engineer and computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, is celebrated globally for having invented the “World Wide Web”, heralding the age of the modern internet and bringing the world virtually closer together. It was such a transformational feat that he was knighted by the British monarch in 2004.
Having invented the Web in 1989 while working at CERN and subsequently working to ensure it is made freely available to all, Berners-Lee is now dedicated to enhancing and protecting the Web’s future. He is the founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation, created in 2009 to ensure the Web serves humanity by establishing it as a global public good and a basic right.
Berners-Lee is also director of the World Wide Web Consortium, a global Web standards organisation he founded in 1994 to lead the Web to its full potential. In 2012, he co-founded and became president of the Open Data Institute (ODI) which advocates for open data in the UK and globally. He has advised a number of governments and corporations on open data, net neutrality and ongoing digital strategies. A graduate of Oxford University, Berners-Lee is currently a professor at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and the University of Oxford in the UK.
In recent years, he has become increasingly concerned about a number of issues that are working against the Web’s potential as a tool which serves all of humanity by informing and to facilitate learning and understanding.
In one of his blogs on the World Wide Web Foundation website, he described the current state of the Web where personal data has become too easy to access and share, and misinformation has become rampant and in part because there is a lack of transparency over the source and purpose of information that is put on it.
Moreover, the combination of intelligent mining of personal data and the use of artificial intelligence in data analytics has enabled such misinformation to become more targeted in order to influence the perception, preferences and even actions of very specific groups of people.
We’ve lost control of our personal data
He discussed the business model of many websites that offers free content in exchange for personal data. He wrote: “Many of us agree to this - albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents - but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, 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, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share - especially with third parties - the terms and conditions are all or nothing.”
“This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. 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. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But 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, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.”
It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the Web
He is also concerned that the Web is beginning to lose its role as a neutral medium for information, learning and understanding as it has become too easy for misinformation to spread. In the same blog, he commented:
“Today, most people find news and information on the Web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. 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. 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.”
He cited the targeted delivery of paid or sponsored political messages that may be disguised as news and information as having insidious ramifications on democracy, especially when it has been proven to shape people’s perception and actions.
“Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and 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. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world - are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”
Notwithstanding the extent and intricacy of the issues, he offered a few solutions: “These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with Web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.”
Keywords: The Future Of Finance Summit 2018, World Wide Web, Technology, Regulations
Institution: World Wide Web Consortium, Open Data Institute
Guest: Tim Berners-Lee