Web must be saved from ‘dysfunctional future’: Berners-Lee

Written by Hannah McGrath
12/03/2019

The internet is set on a “downward plunge to a dysfunctional future” unless action is taken to correct its course, according to Tim Berners-Lee.

In an interview with the BBC to mark thirty years since he invented the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee warned that he was “very concerned about nastiness and misinformation spreading” online.

He added that users had grown wise to the fact that their data could be “manipulated” following a series of data scandals and said these had led many to question whether the web can really be a force for good.

“When the Cambridge Analytica thing went down [people] realised that elections had been manipulated using data that they contributed,” he told the BBC after briefing reporters at CERN, the physics research centre where he first invented the plan for the internet – a concept he revealed his supervisor had described as “vague but exciting”.

Berners-Lee also warned of the threat of fragmentation of the internet into regulatory blocs - such as the United States, the European Union and China - which would be “massively damaging” for web freedoms.

In a public letter, Berners-Lee spoke both of the opportunities the web has opened up as a global “public square” and the darker side of life online, including the rise in hacking, cyber crime and bullying.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit,” he wrote. “It’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good.”

However, he warned that it would be “defeatist” and “unimaginative” to assume that the web could be changed and put to more positive use. “If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.”

He set out three key problems that require global action from governments, regulators and individuals to put the web back on a positive path.

- Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.

- System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.

- Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

"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 concluded.