Sir Tim Berners-Lee Slams Tech Giants On Web's 29th Birthday

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

In a letter posted online Monday, the 29 birthday of the WWW's 1989 invention, Berners-Lee said "misinformation and questionable political advertising" hosted on major social networking websites-who are the "new set of gatekeepers"-have changed the web significantly from its initial conception".

The concentrated power of these firms, Berners-Lee said, is cause for concern.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the World Wide Web arrives at Guildhall to receive an Honorary Freedom of the City of London award on September 24, 2014 in London, England.

The solution, writes Berners-Lee, is a "legal or regulatory framework" that "accounts for "social objectives".

For the first time ever, half the world's population is online.

Berners-Lee complained that tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter now have control over which ideas and opinions are seen and shared online. And he urged people to close the digital divide by supporting affordable online access in poorer countries, so that we do not deepen existing inequalities going forward. To be offline today is to be excluded from opportunities to learn and earn, to access valuable services, and to participate in democratic debate.

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This concentration of power makes it possible to "weaponise the web at scale", evidenced by the spread of conspiracy theories, fake social media accounts created to sow discord, state-level interference in elections and cybercriminals able to steal "troves of personal data".

Since then, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google have been hauled in front of Congress to answer questions over the extent to which their platforms were used in a multi-pronged Russian operation to influence the 2016 presidential election. While the United Nations has declared internet access as a human right, mobile internet still isn't affordable in many developing countries which deprives many off the opportunities to learn and access valuable services. 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 now 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 a little more creative.

Berners-Lee is just one of many people with presumable first-hand knowledge of how such tech companies operate, and how those operations and creations can ultimately affect society. Even though he has been talking about the problems with the web for many years, now he seems to be saying things are at their worst as he referred to the "setbacks of the last two years".

"Today, I want to challenge us all to have greater ambitions for the web". Furthermore, he lays out his desire to have more people involved from across business, tech, government, civil society, the arts, and academia in discussions around the future of the web and not those that control it.

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