On web’s 28th anniversary, its creator Tim Berners-Lee takes aim at fake news

Today, on the 28th anniversary of the web, its creator warned of three trends that must die for the web to be all that it should be. One of those is the spreading of fake news.

On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted his original proposal for the creation of the World Wide Web. 28 years later, in an open letter, Berners-Lee said that in the last 12 months, “I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.”

  1. We’ve lost control of our personal data.
  2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.
  3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.

As it stands now for most of the web, people get free content in exchange for their personal data. Once companies have our data, we no longer have control over with whom it is shared. We can’t pick and choose what gets shared; it’s generally “all or nothing.”

Berners-Lee warned that the “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.

He isn’t just talking about repressive regimes where people can be arrested or killed for saying something online that the powers-that-be don’t like. “Even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far,” he said. The constant monitoring “creates a chilling effect on free speech” and stops the web from being all that the open platform should be.

Fake news has been a hot topic since the US presidential election last year as many have reported that fake news influenced the outcome of the election. Berners-Lee doesn’t go that far, but he is concerned about how fake news can “spread like wildfire.”

He wrote:

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.

Political advertising is monster partially created by the combination of the two problems listed above; Berners-Lee said that the fact that most folks gets their news from one or two platforms, and algorithms on those platforms tap into silos of users’ personal data, it allows extremely targeted political advertising. Facebook, for example, may have served up as many as 50,000 variations of political ads every day during the US election.

Berners-Lee mentioned the 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?”

These complex problems cannot be resolved by the time the web turns 29, but hopefully by the time the web celebrates its 33rd anniversary. Tackling the issues are part of the Web Foundation’s five-year strategy.

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